Destroying the Everglades at 25 Cents Per Ton: Turning Wetlands Into Rock Mines

In early December, on an unseasonably hot and humid Florida day, I sat under a large tent in a crowd of hundreds at the edge of a man-made canal draining the Everglades. On stage, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, deputy assistant secretary of the Army ‘Rock’ Salt who oversees the Corps of Engineers, Gary Guzy, deputy director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and assorted dignitaries to celebrate the decision by the Obama White House and Congress to invest in the elevation of the roadway—one mile of Tamiami Trail—allowing fresh water to flow and hopefully nourish parts of the Everglades that remain as a pale reminder of spectacular biodiversity. Make no mistake: among serial claims of historic accomplishments for restoring the Everglades, this was a big deal. The first hard dollars for a project to restore water flow into the Everglades.
A few hundred feet away, cars and trucks sped across the highway seemingly oblivious to the proceedings. They might have slowed if it were a car crash, an instant fatality, of passengers and drivers thrown from the cars. But the Everglades is another kind of wreck; happening in slow motion over such a long period of time that the easiest course is to forget. It is easy enough to do, in Florida.

From the highway, one cannot even see the Everglades to the north. It is blocked by limestone spoil dredged from the canal and set back from its edges to nearly twenty feet. Even from the tent and rows of folding plastic chairs—brought in by a caterer for the occasion—to see the Everglades you would have to scramble up the spoil bank. The bank itself is only authorized to public access pending approval of half a dozen law enforcement agencies. For me, standing on that spoil was itself an historic occasion. From that vantage, you could simultaneously grasp the speeches, the travelers beyond encased in cars of steel, aluminum and molded plastic, and the Everglades, dammed, diked, and deformed.

Just like the drive-by motorists who have no inkling of the tent and its meaning, and the fishermen ignoring toxic mercury contamination of the fish caught in the canal, many of the attendees at the event were themselves oblivious —or simply could not hold contradictory images at once—that just a few miles away, the Corps of Engineers is about to permit more destruction of Everglades wetlands for industrial rock mining. These permits for wetlands destruction, to be issued soon at the end of nearly a decade of litigation, will likely rob some of the water meant to flow beneath the raised Tamiami Trail costing more than $100 million.

If they wanted, senior officials of the EPA and White House Council on Environmental Quality could elevate the Lake Belt permits sought by industry from the Corps to a higher review. The way things stand, is that DC defers to the local office of the Corps, that defers to the state, the state defers to local jurisdictions that defer to big contributors to political campaigns from the Growth Machine and the engineering cartel. A 2005 St. Petersburg Times special report detailed how in fifteen year period during which “no net loss of wetlands” was federal policy, 84,000 acres of Florida wetlands simply disappeared. (“Paving Paradise: Florida’s vanishing wetlands” by authors Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite was expanded into one of the most important books of 2009.)

The tent sheltered seasoned veterans in the matter of assembling the puzzle of public policies with odd shapes, ownership of land tracts, and laws intersecting at angles that rarely fit into a coherent piece, strong enough to withstand special interests, polluters, and the voracious need of cities for water supply to fuel more growth. A strange division of labor unites the group. Like supervisors who constructed the pyramids of Egypt in the desert, they are informed by a vision and ideal that this damaged ecosystem can rise like a Phoenix.

Maybe. You could glean the tenuous nature of this prospect of man-made resurrections of man-made damage to the environment from a report that appeared a week after the mash-up in the Everglades. The article in the South Florida Sun Sentinel is titled, “South Florida firm now exports cement”. Here how the story begins, “Loading a ship in Broward with tons of cement made in west Miami-Dade is ‘like filling a swimming pool with a coffee cup and stake that cup 30 miles each way’, said (a spokesman) for cement maker Titan America.

The story manages to avoid, utterly, the key point: that the cement coming 30 miles away is coming from Everglades wetlands. There, a foreign corporation based in Greece, paying no tax to the federal treasury on its profits, is excavating Everglades wetlands to ship lime rock to Panama. Consider: at the same time the Everglades are valued highly enough to collect ministers, top political appointees, congressmen and county commissioners, not to mention environmental leaders from hither and yon, only a few miles away the same Everglades are cheap enough to dynamite, chop and grind and ship to Panama.

The ironies pile up so fast you need a IPhone App to keep track. While District Engineer in South Florida in the 1990’s and director of the Governor’s Commission for A Sustainable South Florida, the Corps’ top political official, Rock Salt, was involved in the rock miners’ permits judged to be illegal. Judge William Hoeveler, in his July 2007 ruling, wrote, “In three decades of federal judicial service, this Court has never seen a federal agency respond so indifferently to clear evidence of significant environmental risks related to the agency’s proposed action”. While it has taken nearly a decade for federal litigation to wind its way toward a victory for environmentalists, the current permits under which miners operate are expiring. The rock miners, one of Florida’s wealthiest and most secretive constituencies, are confidently lining up more permits. Win, but lose.

Back under the tent, the Republican congressman whose district encompasses the Everglades, Mario Diaz Balart, talked enthusiastically about the bipartisan love in the Florida delegation for the Everglades. The theme: “Yes it is hard and we have differences, but we are working together” could have been pulled from any speech for the Everglades by a public official; five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago. The same utterances were available from the speakers podium in Palm Beach County in October 2004 when Governor Jeb Bush announced a multi-billion dollar commitment by the state to accelerate restoration of the Everglades. But the Jeb Bush money was for water supply projects benefiting cities and agriculture first, not the Everglades or only at the back end of the investment, and when a longtime Republican congressman, Clay Shaw, had the temerity to say so he was not only banished from the platform wrapped in red, white and blue bunting, in his next campaign he was targeted by the radical, conservative wing of the G.O.P. that had engorged itself on the fictions of the housing market bubble, of wetlands “mitigation” schemes, and the cartel created from serving highly engineered water supply to new suburbs; a game of leap-frogging infrastructure and other cartwheels of public policies that flourished by ignoring its porous financial underpinnings and fraudulent environmental benefits.

But jobs are jobs. That’s what the Sun Sentinel says. “The story behind the first boatload carrying South Florida cement from Port Everglades to Panama this week proves how much work it takes to shift trade gears and save local factory jobs during the U.S. business slump.”

For decades, the United States had permitted the destruction of Everglades wetlands to provide cheap cement for the overdevelopment of Florida. From this point of view, wetlands destruction in Florida partnered with wealth destruction on Wall Street, to balance an unprecedented boom in Florida real estate on the tip of economic and financial catastrophe. Thousands of millionaires floated on the bubble. They depended on Everglades marshes like characters from Glengarry Glen Ross inflated to the size of Macy Day Parade floats. The biggest include sugar billionaires and rock miners, even more secretive and contained behind barbed wire fencing, security cameras, and massive drag lines.

The rock miners don’t want the wetlands. They scrape them clean. What they want is underneath a scrim of soil covering cap rock. Once the limestone—made from fossilized coral – is dynamited and gobbled up by crushers, exposing the aquifer, it is converted to base material for cement and asphalt. A thousand highways growing like kudzu and shopping malls blooming like bougainvillea and new tracts of farmland or wetlands opened to sprawl: all are derivatives of Florida wetlands.

The rock pits left behind after the wetlands are dug out are also convection routes for pollution (Judge Hoeveler also ruled that the Lake Belt rock mines had put the drinking water wells serving more than 2 million residents of Miami-Dade County at risk of contamination) and political corruption. In Palm Beach County, a 1999 deal to put one rock mine in public ownership—for the purposes of “water storage”—eventually landed three of five Palm Beach county commissioners in federal prison but not before a well-connected Republican campaign contributor grossed $200,000 per acre from the state.

This free market folly rises to nearly the height of new nuclear reactors sought by FPL, the largest utility in the state, at the water’s edge of Biscayne National Park; the cost to be borne by ratepayers, $20 billion, is what is estimated to restore the entire remaining Everglades. An important project feature includes a rock mine– presented by the engineering cartel as a faux restoration feature—for provide enough fill to raise the reactors twenty five feet above sea level.

In the Lake Belt in West Miami-Dade County in 2002, the US Army Corps of Engineers issued ten-year permits to Florida rock miners for 5600 acres of Everglades wetlands destruction. Those permits have been judged to be illegal in federal court. There is time for the Obama administration to fairly balance the costs to the Everglades and the public. The price the rock mining industry pays per ton for its privilege to destroy Everglades wetlands in the Lake Belt Area is 25 cents.

Alan Farago writes on culture, the environment and politics in Coral Gables, FL. He can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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