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Mining companies withdraw zoning applications

Commissioner Jimmy Anderson (right) speaks with resident Danny Burger (center) and others outside the courthouse the evening of August 20.Two separate sand mining proposals totaling nearly 500 acres in Baker County were put on hold by the Baker County Commission on the evening of August 20 after the applicants withdrew their petitions to allow more time for reviews of the plans by regulatory agencies and a consultant for the county.

The decision to postpone the matter was not received well by members of the audience, however, as dozens of opponents had come to the meeting on a rainy night hoping the plans would be rejected.

“I just think it’s a stalling tactic by the sand mines to give them more time to get all their things in order,” said Pat Shannon, one of an estimated 6o-70 people in attendance at the meeting, which was held in the biggest courtroom at the county courthouse because a large gathering was expected.

“I call for a vote up or down — period! The majority of people are against the sand mines,” Mr. Shannon said.

There would be no vote that night, however, nor would the county accept a petition signed by residents urging denial of the mining proposals because the hearing, scheduled to begin at 6 pm, was cancelled during a regular commission meeting that began an hour earlier.

In e-mails sent to County Manager C.J. Thompson earlier that afternoon, the two companies — Old Castle Southern Group of Tampa and E.R. Jahna, Inc. of Lake Wales — had asked for a final vote to be deferred, an action that would have been considered after the public hearing began.

But about 5:15 pm, County Attorney Terry Brown announced that the two firms had asked him if they could legally withdraw their applications. He told them they could.

At that point, Commission Chairman Gordon Crews announced that he knew a lot of people in the audience were interested in the issue but that the public hearing would have to be cancelled. That’s when Mr. Shannon stood and made his comments, which received no response from commissioners.

Marcus Rhoden, a member of a citizens group that recently worked to defeat a proposed medical waste incinerator in the same Trail Ridge vicinity targeted for mining by E.R. Jahna, also was disappointed that the board would not accept a petition that he said contained the signatures of more than 2,000 residents county wide opposed to sand mining.

“We wanted to see a vote,” Mr. Rhoden said. “We wanted it over with — final.”

Commissioners delayed voting on the mining projects in June after some board members said they had not heard enough information concerning potential impacts on local water resources to make a fully informed decision.

Specifically, the two mining companies are asking the county to grant zoning exceptions to allow mining operations on property zoned for agricultural use, which generally prohibits such activity.

County land development regulations require the applicants to obtain permits from the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which regulates surface water and wetland impacts, before mining operations begin.

That’s where the process has stalled. Both agencies are seeking additional information, including the results of an extensive test well drilling and sampling program in accordance with state environmental standards.

Old Castle is seeking a 20-year consumptive use permit from the water management district to withdraw roughly two million gallons daily from the lower Floridan Aquifer during the first five years of mining and about 100,000 gallons per day for the next 15 years. The company agreed to construct the well and do the required sampling, but only after the permit is issued.

E.R. Jahna, in an application submitted to the water management district on August 7, is requesting a 20-year permit to withdraw 2.16 million gallons of water daily from the lower aquifer for five years and 180,000 gallons per day for the next 15 years.

The FDEP review will include an evaluation of potential impacts that the mining plans could have on the water table, wetlands and shallow wells, according to HSW Engineering in Tampa, an independent consultant hired by the county and paid for by the mining companies for a third-party evaluation of the proposals.

HSW submitted two interim reports to the county on August 17, in which associate engineer Dean M. Mades noted the ongoing review process for both companies and stated that insufficient information is known “relating to the potential for environmental harm, primarily to nearby offsite wetlands; flood damages associated with a high water table near the tailings (waste material) storage and processing areas where process water, product and waste tailings will be stored; and violation of state water quality standards.”

Mr. Mades also made the following comments in his report:

“The localized modeling is insufficient … to evaluate the potential effects of mining on wetland hydrology and groundwater levels and lake stages associated with wet- and dry-season antecedent conditions.

“There are no nearby wells constructed in the Lower Floridan Aquifer, hence site-specific data are lacking to characterize the chemistry of the LFA at the proposed mine site. The SJRWMD has inferred from regional water-quality data that the LFA water quality may be suitable for makeup mining process water and release to the mine lake.”

A final report will be submitted to the county after additional tests have been completed as required by the state, Mr. Mades said.

In a letter to the county manager dated August 20, Douglas Rillstone, a Tallahassee attorney representing E.R. Jahna, stated that his client was “in the process of completing the analysis of whether there will be any localized effects on the water table as requested by these regulatory agencies, and will provide such analysis to HSW and these regulatory agencies.”

“While we believe there will be a favorable outcome to our analysis … we welcome HSW’s review of such analysis as directed by the board.”

During the commission meeting this week Mr. Rillstone said E.R. Jahna will move forward with the permitting process and return to the board at a later date to resume its application for the required zoning exception.

Dennis McClelland, general manager of Old Castle’s aggregates division, told the board and the audience during the commission meeting that his company was “not trying to do any harm to Baker County. We want to be a good neighbor.”

He further stated that the company’s “calculations are correct that we would not have an effect on anybody’s well.” After the required state permits are issued he said he will return to the county for local approval.

County Manager Thompson said afterward that he was surprised by the requests for withdrawal of the applications. When asked when he thought the matter might be brought back to the board, he shrugged his shoulders and said he had no idea.

“It could be two months or two years, I don’t know,” he said.

Critics say they’re in it for the long haul. No matter how long it takes, they’ll continue to fight.

“We’re not giving up,” Mr. Rhoden said. “We’re going back to neighborhoods throughout the county, knocking on more doors. Our goal is to make it 5,000 (signatures).”

He said he wanted to make it clear that the citizens group he represents is not anti-business, simply concerned about the county’s limited natural resources.

“We don’t want to be labeled as anti-industry,” Mr. Rhoden said. “We want to have industry in our county if it’s not going to be detrimental. But this (sand mining) would be taking out so much of our natural resources for little or nothing back. Our biggest concern is the consumption of our drinking water and the affect on our wells.

“We’ve talked to so many people in our county and we found less than half a dozen that were in favor of it,” he said, adding that two of them worked for DuPont, which owns the land Old Castle plans to mine under a lease in the southeastern part of the county.

Despite the technical reasons for the commission’s decision to cancel the scheduled hearing this week, some residents left the meeting unsatisfied.

“People need to take a position. If they don’t take a position I have to question their leadership,” said Mark Broughton who, along with his wife Allison have helped spearhead grassroots opposition to the incinerator and sand mining proposals.

DuPont has been conducting mining operations for decades in Clay and Baker counties, but that company is in the business of extracting minerals from the earth, not sand, Mr. Broughton said.

“There’s a huge difference between them,” he said. “DuPont takes about 3 percent of the top soil and puts the rest back.”

Sand mining companies, he said, haul most of the material away in trucks, which creates additional traffic hazards on local roads and highways, and leaves huge craters with high walls and water 125 feet deep.

Clerk of Court Al Fraser said people continued to arrive at the courthouse until 6 pm or later expecting to attend a hearing that had been cancelled about 5:15 pm. Long after the meeting had been adjourned, they continued to mill around in front of the courthouse talking about what had happened, he said.

“About 6:15 pm I had somebody go down and put a sign on the front door,” Mr. Fraser said.

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