The DEP gave preliminary approval for Florida Rock to mine 7,629 acres for lime rock, blasting at the rate of 100 acres a year for 70 years. The land at issue covers twelve square miles of sugarcane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area, about four miles south of Lake Okeechobee and about 8 miles upstream of the Everglades. The DEP issued a December 22, 2008 Notice of Intent to permit the mine, even though the agency has not:
- Adequately investigated critical hydrologic connections between the proposed mine and canals which carry water through the Everglades;
- Properly applied the required public interest balancing test to weigh the environmental degradation from the mining against the economic benefit and other alternatives; or
- Considered cumulative impacts of other proposed mines planned for the area.
Earthjustice filed the suit in Florida's Division of Administrative Hearings on January 15 on behalf of The Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club.
"The Department has no business permitting lime rock mining in the former Everglades where the ground is like Swiss cheese," said David Guest, Earthjustice attorney in Tallahassee. "This mine could seriously pollute the groundwater."
The land that Florida Rock wants to mine is bordered by major canals which transport water south to the Everglades and north to Lake Okeechobee. The rock would be gouged 30 feet down, and the mining corporation would leave behind two large ponds covering nearly all of the 7,629 acres.
The DEP's permit would allow Florida Rock to blast through cap rock and expose previously confined rock to oxygenated surface water. Rock in this region contains high levels of arsenic and other elements that are pulled out of the rock matrix by oxygen and mobilized into the environment. Historical excavation of deep drainage canals throughout the EAA created extensive hydrological connectivity between canals and groundwater.
Water contaminated by arsenic at the mine is likely to be drawn into the canal system -- and South Florida drinking water supplies -- when it rains or when pumping occurs. Although the underground rock formations have been described as "Swiss cheese," no studies have been done to determine the conductivity between the site and the canals.
The DEP permit allows Florida Rock to remove a three-foot-thick layer of muck soil before it mines. This muck soil probably contains mercury, is very likely to contain persistent pesticides, and previous studies demonstrate that it contains very large concentrations of phosphorous and other contaminants left behind from 50 years of sugarcane farming. Florida Rock plans to spread the muck soil over land around the mine, which would pollute surface and ground waters.
The deep aquifer in this region also contains saline water with high levels of chloride above drinking water standards. Blasting for the project may allow fresh water aquifers to be contaminated by saline sources and may increase the salinity in surface waters through seepage into canal systems.
"Taxpayers are already paying to preserve the Everglades, and it makes no sense for the Florida DEP to allow polluting mining like this to undermine the restoration effort," said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation.