Sand mining company Old Castle Southern Group has been on the offensive in recent weeks meeting with government officials, business owners and others in preparation for the upcoming hearing before the Baker County Commission.
The county has moved the August 20 hearing on the Tampa-based company’s proposal to the courthouse in anticipation of a large crowd attending the 6 pm meeting.
Last June commissioners delayed consideration of zoning exceptions to accommodate Old Castle’s mining plans and those of another firm, E.R. Jahna, Inc. of Lake Wales, for two months.
That’s when a group of concerned residents launched a campaign to spur opposition to the plans and pressure commissioners, three of whom are up for re-election this year, to vote against the exception applications.
Old Castle and Jahna hope to mine hundreds of acres at two sites southeast and northeast of Macclenny, respectively, during the next several decades. They must obtain the exceptions because mining is not generally permitted in the agricultural zoning districts where the tracts are located.
Both properties have historically been used for timber production.
In the meantime, Old Castle hired Elizabeth Revell, a public relations consultant from Fernandina Beach with experience helping companies combat the often negative perception of the mining industry.
Ms. Revell said she’s been doing public outreach “to meet face-to-face with anybody and everybody we can.” She’s set up meetings between the head of Old Castle’s aggregates division, Dennis McClelland, and neighboring landowners, business people, church groups, elected officials and county staff.
But not everyone wants to meet with the company, Mr. McClelland said during an hour-long conversation with County Commissioner Michael Crews the afternoon of August 3 at the county administration building. The Press was invited to the summit as well.
“They have their mind made up and it doesn’t really make a difference what the facts are,” Mr. McClelland said of the project’s detractors.
From Mr. Crews’ view, Old Castle’s attorney at the last hearing, Wyman Duggan, insulted the board by telling commissioners they should consider the company’s application in light of the law, not public opinion.
“The public’s concern is my concern,” Mr. Crews told Mr. McClelland and Ms. Revell, who was also at the meeting.
Now, the company is attempting to polish its public image. Old Castle is buying ad space to tout the results of a recently finished economic impact study and seeking a permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District to withdraw 2-3 million gallons per day from a deep aquifer well.
Ms. Revell said those efforts, combined with the soon-to-be completed analysis of the mining the plans by a “independent, third-party” engineer, selected by the county and paid by Old Castle and E.R. Jahna, should help the company, and perhaps, ease fears that mining could adversely impact the local water supply and cause traffic headaches on the county’s roadways.
“We don’t want to be seen like we’re making a last ditch effort or sales pitch,” she said. “We’re just trying to be transparent and tell people who we are and what we’re about.”
Mr. McCelland explained that the company has calculated the impact of its proposed water withdrawals from the lower aquifer.
He said the company’s analysis shows that there will be no impact on the upper aquifer, where most residential wells pull water from, and a drawdown of 1.3 inches on the middle layer of the aquifer, where the City of Macclenny obtains its water supply.
“It’s all just flowing out to the ocean anyway,” Mr. McClelland said of the water in the lower aquifer.
The economic impact study, commissioned by Old Castle from Fishkind & Associates of Orlando, has not been released by the company yet, but Mr. McCelland said it estimates $6.8 million of commerce during the 12- to 18-month construction phase of the mine, including $2.5 million in “construction earnings” and 72 total construction jobs.
“Will all those be here? Probably not,” he said.
The mining operation itself will generate $4.4 million in annual economic impact following construction, Mr. McClelland said, including 16 permanent jobs, local taxes and ancillary impacts like purchases at the hardware store and work for trucking companies who would be hired to haul the mined material.
To address concerns about potential damage to local roads, Mr. McClelland said Old Castle would assist with road repairs if damage occurs near its project site.
“If something happens on the county road, we’ll be there to help you,” he said.
Mr. McClelland also said the company would agree to donate the mining property, 436 acres in all, which will include wetlands and some 190 acres of man-made lakes, to the county for public use after operations cease.
What the company will not agree to, however, is accepting a zoning exception that expires after a few years, which the City of Macclenny has requested from the commission.
“That will not work,” he said. “It’s like borrowing money on a house for 20 years, but you can only live in it for two years and you have to keep paying on it for 18 years.”
Unlike Old Castle, the other mining firm E.R. Jahna has not pursued public outreach efforts since the last hearing.
It’s attorney, Corby Myers, said Jahna may be in a position to help fund road repairs and maintenance, but it’s not open to a limited zoning exception, either.
“Our initial investment is $6-$10 million and not knowing if you’re going to be there a year or two from now makes any kind of business decision very difficult,” said Mr. Myers.
“What we’ve been working on is getting the information in a timely manner to the independent third party reviewer,” he said. “Hopefully that will quell some of the fears of the public on the water use and they’ll see there’s minimal to no impact on water resources.”
Commissioners may be faced with another standing room-only crowd later this month at the courthouse. If recent history is any indication, many will voice reservations about to the sand mining projects. Petition signatures being collected in the community against the projects are rumored to have some 2500 names, according to Commissioner Crews.
“When that many folks come out and say there opposed to something like this, your work’s cut out for you,” he said.