Sunday, August 20, 2006

Proposed mining site in Florida panther territory

By Jeremy Cox
Saturday, August 19, 2006

Not far from Big Cypress National Preserve, a swampy cow pasture harbors one of the last accessible limestone deposits in Collier County beneath its unassuming surface.

Here, a Jacksonville-based mining company sees an opportunity to satisfy a big chunk of the fast-growing county's rock demand for 15 years. But environmental advocates and one federal agency see irreparable damage to an endangered bird species and a loss of nearly 600 acres of pollution-filtering wetlands.

The Environmental Protection Agency has warned that the 1,400-acre mine might have "substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts" on wetlands that are uncomfortably close to Big Cypress. To emphasize the point, the agency has declared that the wetlands are "aquatic resources of national importance."

Still, Florida Rock Industries, a company with a tarnished environmental record, is pushing ahead with plans to build the county's ninth and largest operating mine. The estimated 50 million tons of limestone at the site would enable more sidewalks, sewer pipes and highways to be built in Collier County and across Southwest Florida.

In that respect, the mining proposal's impact on growth extends far beyond its borders.

"Obviously, the reason we acquired the tract is because it was large enough to make it feasible to mine," said John Milton, executive vice president and chief financial officer for Florida Rock. "We perceive there is a real demand within reasonable transportation distance of this site."

The sprawling property sits one mile north of Interstate 75 and four miles east of Collier Boulevard in remote North Belle Meade. There is a clear and relatively short path, however, to East Naples, one of the county's fastest growing areas.

Wedged between Golden Gate Estates and the four-lane interstate, the area is one of the last stands for red-cockaded woodpeckers on privately owned land in Collier County.

Over the past few years, North Belle Meade has become the focus of a government-led preservation effort created in reaction to evidence that the endangered birds had been wiped out west of Collier Boulevard. Because of its long-ago conversion to pasture lands, the Florida Rock site is the only spot that can be developed in North Belle Meade, under a landmark county growth plan.

"(The county) made a map, so someone like Florida Rock could know where to build and where to not," said Brad Cornell of the Collier Audubon Society. "Without it, you would just have mines all over the map."

To the west of Florida Rock's property, landowner Francis D. Hussey Jr. has challenged the 2000 growth plan to allow him to mine rock on 350 acres. The property could yield up to $400 million in limestone, said Hussey's attorney, John Vega.

Although the Florida Rock mine would be on less environmentally sensitive land, the company still needs to avoid having an impact on red-cockaded woodpeckers, said Nancy Payton. After meeting with company officials with other environmental groups, the Florida Wildlife Federation representative left upset.

"They were out-of-towners that didn't really have any interest in the natural values in Collier County. They just wanted to get the rock out of there," Payton said.

In its quest to reap limestone, Florida Rock has run afoul of the environment across Florida.

In March, a federal judge ruled that a dozen mining permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a Florida Rock mine in Miami-Dade's Lake Belt region had been improperly issued. The company hopes to recover 139 million tons at that site, which is on the eastern edge of the Everglades.

A federal judge threw out a permit for a 6,000-acre mining permit in eastern Lee County in 2004, saying the project was part of a flawed federal system in which projects in panther territory received rubber stamps.

"I would be unrealistic if I told you we were perfect," Milton said. "That would be a dream but it wouldn't be reality. Our goal is to be responsive environmentally."

Florida Rock proposes to dig and blast away the earth to create a lake up to 70 feet deep. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is consulting with the Army Corps to determine the project's impact to panthers, wood storks and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

If constructed, the mine could supply 30 percent of Collier County's annual need for limestone, said Joe Bonness of Naples-based road-builder Better Roads. It also would help stop the ballooning cost of rock, which has gone up from $5 a ton four years ago to $13 a ton.

"That area is probably one of the last (in Collier) that has good rock but is not in a state forest or in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge," Bonness said.

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