Fight over DR/GR mining rules continues

As this good overview of the issue (and the reason for the DR/GR) reminds us, the county’s efforts to open up the DR/GR lands to more mining still faces legal challenges, and Lee Future hopes this suit will overturn the county’s move to eliminate crucial protections to this essential resource area.

Expanded limerock mining and groundwater recharge and protection simply don’t mix.

Originally published by NBC-2 on Feb. 20, 2020

NBC2 Investigates: Should mining rules be changed in Lee County?

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — As Lee County continues to grow and develop, there’s one area that remains relatively untouched.

It’s called the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource, or DRGR, and consists of 83,000 acres in southeast Lee County.

Ecologist Kevin Erwin spent a day showing the NBC2 Investigators around the area — everything from active farms to rural neighborhoods to long-standing lime rock mines.

The DRGR is also a valuable groundwater resource for the county, consisting of public supply wells and preserved wildlife habitats, some of which Erwin has helped restore over the years.

“They are reservoirs for biodiversity,” Erwin explained.

The DRGR was first created in 1990 as part of a state mandate. Bill Spikowski was a planner with Lee County at the time.

“(It was) much more restrictive on development,” Spikowski explained. “A whole new set of rules for nearly a fourth of the county.”

Then, in 2007, the Lee County Board of Commissioners initiated a new study. Both Erwin and Spikowski, who now works as a private consultant, were part of the team that did the work. Ultimately, they recommended even stronger restrictions on development in the DRGR, including the addition of Map 14, which limited where future mining could happen.

Current county commissioner Frank Mann, who was also on the board back then, was among those who voted for the restrictions.

“These mines today go a hundred feet deep,” Mann said. “That has a major impact on the flow of the underground water and the purification and the re-charge of that water.”

“The whole natural environment in Southwest Florida is built on certain kinds of water flows. When you change those water flows, those water-dependent environments can’t function the same way.” Spikowski explained. “The water that’s flowing out into Estero Bay… that’s the bigger issue.”

But now, more than a decade later, the county has reversed course. In 2019, the board of commissioners — all but Frank Mann, the lone holdover from 2008 — voted to eliminate Map 14, among other changes.

Dozens of people spoke out against the changes during an hours-long public meeting, but commissioner Brian Hamman said they needed to make the county’s rules more legally defensible.

“The liability was racking up,” Hamman explained to the NBC2 Investigators. “We were facing, when I got on the County Board of Commissioners in 2013, more than a hundred million dollars in potential damages from just existing litigation that was on the books.”

Hamman said the board’s decision to remove Map 14 does not automatically mean more mines will be approved.

He said state agencies determined eliminating Map 14 — in and of itself — would not have adverse impacts on things like water flows and water quality. New mining proposals are still subject to a rigorous approval process, with things like water quality being considered, Hamman said.

“The facts were that the state reviewing agencies looked at all the opinions and things that people shared as concerns and said, ‘No, sorry we’ve studied it, there are no adverse impacts,’” Hamman said of the elimination of Map 14.

Commissioner Mann argued that the opinions of state agencies don’t carry much weight.

“Agencies that used to oversee environmental concerns at the local level have become totally neutered. They’re totally ineffective. They never speak out against anything,” Mann said. “Everything is rubber-stamped in Tallahassee and sent right back in the name of economic development, not environmental protection.”

In a separate decision, the board — again, everyone but Frank Mann — also voted last year to approve a proposed mining operation by Troyer Brothers Florida Inc., a farming company with land in the northeast part of the DRGR outside the original Map 14 mining zones.

Right next door is farmland and research facilities owned by Sakata Seed. The company is now fighting the board’s decisions by filing appeals in court.

Sakata Seed branch manager Randy Johnson explained to NBC2 the concerns they have with the proposed mine.

“The two major issues for us are traffic. Not just regular traffic — dangerous traffic. But also the noise and the dust. The dust on top of our buildings here. The dust on top of our crops,” Johnson explained. “We’re trying to accomplish scientific research here. We can’t have consistent conditions if we’ve got a gradient of dust from west to east.”

Troyer Brothers spokeswoman Tina Matte declined an interview with NBC2, saying the company has already gone through an extensive public hearing process. In a previous report, Matte told NBC2 the proposed mines would bring jobs to the area and at the conclusion of mining operations, the land would be restored and preserved.

“We’ve done water studies multiple times, we’ve done traffic studies. Everything has been looked at,” Matte said in 2019. “We feel really comfortable at the end of the day this will be a great compatible conservation opportunity for the long term.”

“The Troyer Brothers mine clearly proved beyond the threshold of competent, substantial evidence, that they were entitled to do that activity,” commissioner Hamman said. “We also have tremendous infrastructure needs. Lime rock is a resource that helps us to build roads and houses and government buildings to serve the people who are moving here.”

Hamman said what’s been lost in the controversy is the work the county is doing to protect the DRGR.

Still, it likely won’t quiet the concerns of those worried about the board’s recent moves, including the concerns from one of their own.

“I think a decade from now people are going to say, ‘What were they thinking?’” Commissioner Mann said.

“If we start messing around with our water supply, somebody’s gonna pay in the future,” Kevin Erwin said.

Hamman told NBC2 that no final decisions have been made yet on the appeals of the board’s decisions. It’s unclear exactly when a judgment will be made.

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