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Better data needed on sand mining plans

Is there an echo in here? Yes, my friends, there is.

In this space last week The Press’ publisher Jim McGauley called on the county commission to exercise due diligence in evaluating the two sand mining proposals it delayed taking action on until August.

That’s great advice considering how much water the mines intend to use. Water is a public resource and perhaps the most important natural resource behind the air we breath.

But here’s why I would go even further, and say the county should hire this independent third-party engineer, that the mining companies have so generously pledged to pay for. Commissioners would be wise to ensure this expert digs deeper (pardon the pun) than the St. Johns River Water Management District appears to be going with its permitting process.

After scanning some of the permit documents that Old Castle Southern Group, which hopes to suck 2.88 million gallons per day from the lower aquifer for at least a few years after startup, it’s apparent that the modeling done to predict the impact on other wells nearby uses old information that may not show the truest picture of reality. Some of the data is 17 years old.

The City of Macclenny’s consulting engineer Frank Darabi has said as much in letters to city and county officials. He and the city have asked that Old Castle Southern’s consultants drill holes in the ground to see what the aquifer’s condition is today.

But the water management district doesn’t appear to feel that’s necessary.

Old Castle’s consultant, which is applying for the withdrawal permit on the company’s behalf, clearly state’s in the introduction section of the permit application that it used old information — specifically a district-provided model from 2008 and “well file” from 1995.

I wonder how many wells have been drilled here since the mid-90s?

The application says the consultant used the outdated data based on its knowledge of district requirements and discussions with district staff. In other words, you, the district, said it’s cool to use information gathered nearly two decades ago, so here you go.

If you read a little further, you’ll see the results of Old Castle Southern’s simulation, meant to show the affect its planned withdrawal would have on nearby wells. They show draw downs of less than an inch on the upper and lower aquifers 1.5 miles from the pumping site.

That’s minor; nearly undetectable, the company’s representatives say.

But there’s some key elements missing from this picture, that should tell county commissioners to proceed with an abundance of caution.

Government regulations are often written by the industries they regulate. And rules governing water are some of the hardest fought restrictions in Florida, as the recent multi-year wrangling over federal nutrient limits that impact water quality demonstrate.

Florida legislators have drastically cut funding for water districts. Given that the prevailing wisdom in Tallahassee is to rollback environmental regulations on business, I bet district engineers are not encouraged to scrutinize applicants as much as they have in years past.

Oh yeah; then there’s the fact that Old Castle Southern’s withdrawal permit doesn’t account for the other 2-3 million gallons per day that another company, E.R. Jahna, Inc., intends to pump from the aquifer across town during roughly the same period.

The latter company has yet to seek a permit from the district.

It’s entirely conceivable there will be no impacts to existing wells that supply water to the City of Macclenny and the rest of the county’s homes and businesses.

And I don’t begrudge the mining companies for trying to develop these sites as fast and cost-effectively as possible. But the companies should not object, or make veiled litigation threats, when county commissioners attempt to protect the interests of their constituents.

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