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Mining task force overlooked impacts, scientist says

Published By: Sun Herald

GREG MARTIN Staff Writer

A state task force considering ways to ensure the mining industry access to “strategic” gravel, sand and shell resources in the future — even over the objections of local government if necessary — completed a report to the Legislature this week.

The report provides options that range from leaving the regulation over mining the way it is now, where both state and local agencies play similar roles, to restricting counties to reviewing only zoning and traffic issues and leaving the evaluation of environmental impacts up to the state.

But the so-called Strategic Aggregates Review Task Force failed to address the environmental impacts of such excavations and has at least one member who was involved in a past attempt by the mining industry to suppress public comment, according to Dr. Sydney Bacchus.

She ought to know. She was the person the industry tried to suppress, she said Friday.

The issue at hand

Bacchus, a hydroecologist who has testified as an expert numerous times in courts and county hearings about the impacts of pit excavations, provided her critique of the task force's deliberations in a Jan. 29 letter to the task force and Gov. Charlie Crist. Bacchus also recently testified at both a Charlotte County Commission meeting regarding a proposed phosphate compact and at a local dirt mine hearing in which a permit for a Washington Loop fill pit was denied.

Her comments this week came just after she settled a two-year legal battle over an attempt by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation to silence her from commenting on the impacts of mining.

The DBPR in February 2006 issued a cease and desist order against her citing the crime of “practicing geology without a license.” The agency also threatened to fine her $5,000.

In response, she filed a federal lawsuit claiming the state was violating her constitutional right to free speech. The agency subsequently offered to rescind the order, provided she drop the suit and not speak again on geological matters.

She declined that offer. In December, the state agreed to pay her $100,000 to settle her suit.

The DBPR had been prodded to prosecute Bacchus by two geology consultants for the mining industry, Robert Kirkner, who filed the complaint and Thomas Missimer, a former president of the Florida Professional Geologists Association, who submitted documents in support of the case.

Both Kirkner and Missimer have served as consultants to Florida Rock during a time in which Bacchus was testifying against mining proposals.

Missimer, of the firm Schlumberger Water Services U.S.A., was appointed to the task force by Crist. Missimer is one of three mining industry representatives on the committee.

“Consultants for various mining projects I have evaluated have gone beyond the legal bounds in their attempts to suppress the public information process,” Bacchus advised the committee.

Tricky encounters

In her letter, she recalled that she first encountered Missimer, and, later, Kirkner, after she testified about the potential impacts of a proposed Florida Rock mine in Hawthorn, located in Putnam County, Fla., in 2005. She testified the mine could have impacts on a pristine spring-fed forested area near the site.

After her remarks, Missimer took the podium “in a rage, espousing that it was illegal for me to provide comments at this and other public forums,” Bacchus recalled in her letter.

Bacchus said Friday she recounted her legal battle to warn the task force to be leery of Missimer's input.

She pointed out that, during one task force meeting, Missimer argued in support of “statewide” authority over mine permitting, if a trend continues in which “every single mine permit is being defeated in local government by (a) few people.”

“We're sort of beating round the bush on the issue of permitting, and the NIMBY Syndrome,” Missimer had said, referring to the “not in my backyard” mentality.

“Obviously the information given to the task force by Missimer was not accurate,” Bacchus said. She pointed out that hearing rooms for mining permits are often “packed to capacity” with citizens “vehemently objecting the proposed mines.”

“So, if the task force is using that kind of information as a basis of its report to the Legislature, that's problematic,” she said. Missimer, contacted at his Fort Myers office Friday, said his comment that a “few people” were thwarting mine permits was based on the fact some permits have been denied by a 3-2 vote of a county commission.

He also defended his objection to Bacchus' past testimony because it involved matters that require expertise in geology.

“I was the chairman of the (Florida) board of professional geologists,” he said. “Like most other geologists, when she makes statements about geology, we think she's not qualified.”

A higher standard

Lay persons may speak their minds at public hearings, he said. “But if you're an expert giving sworn testimony, there's a higher standard to be applied.”

Bacchus made statements at the Putnam mine hearing indicating that water could drain into a pit from miles away, Missimer said. Such a statement would require a knowledge of the geological formations, he said.

Bacchus, however, said the geologists for the mining industry typically fail to address offsite impacts.

She cited one instance in which she was aware of a study that indicated the presence of “fractures and relic sinkholes” that could provide a preferred pathway for underground water to move toward a pit. But the mining company's consultants hadn't checked the study, she said.

“And yet Missimer and the industry act like I'm deranged for bringing (such impacts) up,” she said.

Bacchus has a Ph.D. in hydroecology from the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology and has studied pre-doctoral courses in hydrology, geochemistry and water quality at the University of Central Florida.

Now a private consultant based in Athens, Ga., Bacchus' experience includes working as a hydroecologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She has also authored more than three dozen peer-reviewed scientific reports.

Bacchus, in her letter, argued that a transcript of the task force's deliberations is replete with statements implying that mined pits are “environmental assets.” Such statements have “no scientific basis,” she said.

She cited statements by members about mining in the Florida Big Bend's Taylor and Dixie counties.

“I am familiar with existing mines in that area and it is my profession opinion that the groundwater impacts from those mines have been a significant factor in dewatering surrounding streams that discharge to the Gulf of Mexico,” she wrote.

Addressing impacts?

Task force member Rick Cantrell, a deputy director of the DEP, said he didn't believe it was the task force's job to address environmental impacts.

“The emphasis here and the push was for a stable supply of aggregate so that Florida's economy would not suffer — and everybody on the panel also understands that nobody wants to harm the environment,” Cantrell said. “(The question was:) Is there duplication that could be done away with? And that, I think, was the strongest emphasis.”

Cantrell pointed out that the DEP now regulates environmental impacts from aggregate mines, which are mines that include screening and sorting operations.

Typically, “borrow pits,” in which fill dirt or shell is excavated and loaded directly on trucks, are regulated by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, he said.

“In all the debates, no one to my knowledge is contemplating or suggesting local government have no role in the process,” he said. “What (members) were upset about was that some local governments were also second-guessing environmental decisions and that's what some individuals pushed to resolve.”

The task force's report lists 33 counties that contain critical aggregate resources such as limestone gravel, sand and shell. Charlotte County is included on the list.

But the intent of the task force is not to affect the existing local regulation of the smaller “borrow pits” that have proliferated in the county, Cantrell said.

You can e-mail Greg Martin at gmartin@sun-herald.com.

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