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Only prudent course was delay sand mining vote

The two companies that had Baker County in a turmoil in recent months seeking to bring their sand mining operations to sites south and east of Macclenny did last week what they had to do.

Both withdrew petitions for zoning exceptions pending environmental review by two state agencies — St. Johns Water Management District and the Department of Environmental Protection.

Opponents were loaded for bear before the hearings cancelled at the last minute the evening of August 21 — a petition with 2000 names and warm bodies to fill the large second-story courtroom at the county courthouse.

Alas, it was all for naught, at least for the present.

The controversy isn’t about sand mining, after all. It’s about water supply, and one could argue convincingly that the environmental impact portion of this should have preceded the zoning exception request.

But it didn’t, and we need to deal with what is.

As mentioned before, the plans of Old Castle Southern Group of Tampa and E.R. Jahna of Lake Wales broke into the public consciousness at an inopportune time — right on the heels of the medical waste incinerator request (also at Trailridge and environs) that turned into a fiasco.

The public perception with all three projects — rightly or wrongly — was that they screamed out “environmental hazard!” foisted on the public after groundwork was laid in secret.

That’s not exactly accurate, but it didn’t matter — perception is everything.

So now, will state agencies be able to tell us with certainty whether sand mining will drain off available underground water supplies? Will they, like the consultant hired by the companies, beg off for now saying the “localized modeling” is insufficient to determine yes or no?

If so, how do we get to “localized modeling” and predict how much water is really down there in the Lower Aquifer and whether the 20-year permits to draw between 2.16 million gallons a day down to 100,000 gallons a day can be predicted at all?

Educated guesses (we can’t actually “see” the aquifers) are great, but what if they’re inaccurate? What if Baker County in 2034 realizes it too late? Who do we complain to 20 years from now?

County commissioners are off the hook for now, and the can’s been kicked down the road. It’s possible the companies will be issued permits in the future and we still won’t get definitive answers to those concerns.

Then what?

Then it truly becomes a matter of whether Baker County wants sand mining or not. And if the permits come through, does the county have the right to deny the companies access to the sand?

And because there are these uncertainties out there, the two companies had little choice last week other than to call off the dogs. And when they did, there were disgruntled people who thought the commission should have gone ahead anyway and made a decision that night.

What they really meant was to make the decision to turn it down, which would have been hard to do since there was no zoning request on the table. You can’t turn something down that isn’t there — it’s called due process.

No, the Baker County Commission will await the results of permit applications from state agencies whose job it is to protect the public, including making sure we have adequate and pure water resources. If they don’t do that, what do we need them for?

The can’s been kicked down the road, but it’s still laying there — right in our path.

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