|Commissioners put off decision on sand mines|
|The Press - News|
|Written by Mike Anderson|
|Thursday, 21 June 2012 15:11|
A jam-packed Baker County Commission meeting room on the evening of June 18 left no doubt where the vast majority of people in attendance stood on two proposed sand mining proposals.
They wanted them buried and gone.
It didn’t seem to matter how safe or harmless to the environment the applicants promised the mining would be, nor that the mined areas eventually would be reclaimed. It also didn’t matter how much of an economic impact they claimed the operation would have in the county.
Most of the approximately 80 people, many of whom had to stand during the proceedings because there were only 45 chairs in the room, were against the mining plans and urged county commissioners to side with them.
“What is the actual benefit to the county?” asked Macclenny resident Pat Shannon, adding that the mining companies would use billions of gallons of water while only employing a handful of workers and adding a negligible amount to the county’s coffers in taxes.
“It just doesn’t add up,” he said. “I’m concerned about whether my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have enough water to drink. Water is a precious commodity and we can’t give that up.”
After more than three hours of testimony from mining company officials and hearing from a parade of homeowners on the opposite side of the issue, county commissioners rejected a motion to deny the mining requests and postponed a final decision for two months.
Old Castle Southern Group, a Tampa-based company, plans to mine 193 acres of a 437-acre tract it leases from DuPont east of SR 228 about two miles south of Interstate 10. The firm, which owns a road-paving company and a concrete plant, also has a contract to buy another 700 acres, which could extend the life of the proposed mine to 50 years.
E.R. Jahna Industries Inc., a family-owned business in the Central Florida town of Lake Wales, leases 960 acres owned by TerraPoint LLC, a subsidiary of Rayonier, just north of three residential subdivisions off US 90 at Trailridge. There, Jahna plans to mine coarse sand used to make siding, concrete blocks, stucco and other products.
During a public hearing that began about 6:30 pm and didn’t end until just after 10 pm, others expressed similar views that the proposed deal would be slanted too much in favor of the mining companies.
“The return is not there for the people of Baker County,” said Kirk Schiner of Shelly Lane, adding that drinking water is “not a never-ending supply.”
“We need good air and good water to survive,” Richard Cooper of Elvin Starling Road said. “If you want to pass this, how about a tax per ton of sand that they want to take out of here?”
Then, turning his attention to a group of Old Castle representatives seated in the audience, Mr. Cooper said, “You can’t reclaim the land because you’ve hauled it all off.”
Another critic was Allison Broughton, a former member of the county’s Land Planning Agency, which recently recommended approval of the two mining applications. She spoke against the measures as zealously as she fought a recent attempt by another company to obtain a zoning exception to build a medical waste incinerator north of the Walmart Distribution Center.
“It has a negative impact on our entire county,” Mrs. Broughton said of the proposed mining plan. “I don’t think there‘s any doubt about that. A handful of jobs is not worth the depletion of our natural resources. We gain almost nothing by allowing these mines to come in.”
She said she had nothing personal against any of the company officials or representatives present at the hearing, whom she looked at when she described them as “out-of-town business people.”
“They don’t live here,” said Mrs. Broughton.
Plans submitted by the two mining companies assert the sites will not produce any air pollution and they will be buffered by trees and vegetation to minimize noise and keep their operations out of sight.
They also said the mines, which use floating electric-powered hydraulic dredges, extract water from deep in the Floridan Aquifer and would have no impact on private wells, which draw water from shallower portions of the aquifer that are not affected by water withdrawals from deeper levels.
“We’re willing to spend more money to go to an aquifer that is not used in this county,” said Old Castle consultant Mark Stephens, a geologist and engineer from Lakeland. He said the company plans to drill 1,200 feet deep to draw water from the lower aquifer.
During the first five years, Mr. Stephens said, about 3.5 billion gallons of water would be extracted from the aquifer, after which the amount of water withdrawn from underground would drop sharply because by that time the previously withdrawn water can be reused to continue daily operations.
Nonetheless, Macclenny City Manager Gerald Dopson urged commissioners to proceed cautiously.
“We feel these mining proposals will be in the area of influence of our well fields,” he said of the municipal water supply of drinking water to thousands of city residents and dozens of businesses.
Mr. Dopson echoed the comments of many others who spoke during the hearing when he stressed his “real concerns” about the Floridan Aquifer and how the underground water supply might be adversely impacted by the mining operations.
“We want to be very protective of our water supply,” Mr. Dopson said. “They (mining companies) want to make money, and there’s nothing wrong with making money. But are they making money at the expense of the rest of the county?”
The city pumps about 1 million gallons of water per day and distributes it to residential and commercial customers. As the city grows in the decades ahead, Mr. Dopson said, it wants to be able to continue meeting the drinking water needs of its citizens.
Manager Dopson then read a prepared statement into the record:
“The special exceptions, if granted, should be issued for a maximum of … two years subject to the facilities providing site specific lithological and hydro geologic data including aquifer performance testing for review.
“The special exception should also include specific language allowing the county to terminate the special exception in the event that mining operations result in adverse impacts to the city’s well fields and other existing infrastructure or the environment.”
Wyman Duggan, a Jacksonville attorney representing Old Castle Southern Group, said engineering models indicate the mining operation after 20 years would only cause a “total drawdown of one-third of an inch” at the nearest city well about 2.5 miles away.
He further said sand mining has been done successfully for many years with no problems and did not anticipate any problems here.
“Sand mining is well established in Florida,” Mr. Duggan said. “It’s not a new industry. Mining and mineral extraction are encouraged by your (county) comprehensive plan. Mining is not new to the county and not new to this property.”
Indeed, DuPont has been mining on hundreds of acres in the southeastern portion of Baker County for many years. Describing Old Castle’s request for a special zoning exception as a “housekeeping matter,” Mr. Duggan said it should be approved as a routine measure.
“Mining and mineral extraction are encouraged by your (county) comprehensive plan,” he told commissioners.
Mr. Duggan asked commissioners to not be swayed by the emotional arguments critics made, but to consider the scientific evidence that shows no adverse impact on the environment from sand mining. He also pointed out that the company’s plans meet all the requirements needed in the county’s land development and zoning code to seek a special exception permit for a mine.
“They’re speaking from the heart,” he said about the residents voicing their fears and concerns. “They care about their community. But you’re not here to do the will of the people. You’re here to apply the law.”
If the county approves the mining proposals they will be contingent on the owners’ obtaining permits from federal and state agencies, including the US Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Wildlife Commission and St. Johns River Water Management District, which controls water withdrawals.
The water management district is presently reviewing the mining plans and is expected to release its findings in the next couple of months. Without the agency‘s approval, the mining plans would go no further.
“This boils down to whether we can trust the water management district to do their job,” Commissioner Adam Giddens said. “I’d like to think we can.”
Commissioner Mark Hartley, however, expressed concerns about how the proposed mining operations might affect nearby wetlands and the Floridan Aquifer. He said he didn’t see an upside to the equation.
“I don’t think it can have a positive effect on the county,” Mr. Hartley said.
A few minutes later he made a motion to deny the mining petition and after a pause of several seconds Commissioner Giddens seconded the motion. But when Chairman Gordon Crews called for a vote, Mr. Hartley was the only one who voted in favor of his own motion, which failed 4-1.
Shortly afterward, commissioners voted to continue the hearing on August 20, or possibly earlier if the water management district renders its decision before then.
Meanwhile, mining company officials agreed to pay for the county to hire an independent hydro geologist to review the plans and render an unbiased opinion as to whether the scientific data furnished by the applicants is accurate and reliable.
|Last Updated on Friday, 20 July 2012 12:48|