Lee County’s recent rock mine decisions endanger critical natural resources

Locally-mined limestone is used for building roads and many kinds of buildings. But limestone has another important use too, naturally cleaning water as it percolates through limestone layers just below ground surface. By removing the limestone, mines take away its natural cleansing function – that’s one of the reasons that the location of mines is so important. Lee County recently repealed its most important locational criteria for mines; this in-depth article from the News-Press explains the devastating effects of Lee County’s recent decisions.

Originally published by David Dorsey in The News-Press on Dec. 3, 2020

https://www.news-press.com/story/news/2020/12/03/lee-county-rock-mine-decisions-endanger-corkscrew-swamp-sanctuary-experts-say/3622259001/

Lee County rock mine decisions endanger Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, experts say

Lee County said no a decade ago to a landowner about mining its property. The land has been part of a water recharge area for more than a quarter century, and parts of it lie adjacent to county-owned land designed to protect water resources.

Now experts fear the county’s reversal on mining that property will hurt those water resources, spark dangerous traffic to and from Lehigh Acres and damage the ecosystem and water supply needed for a healthy Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

“When they change their mind like that, it’s disastrous, and you have to face the consequences,” said Bill Spikowski, a former Lee County director of growth management and since 1992 the owner of a city planning consulting company. He has been a paid consultant to Sakata Farms, which filed a lawsuit against Lee County over the mine. “There are no more governmental hurdles.”

The county commission’s decisions and their future consequences include further clogging State Road 82 traffic with about 1,600 dump trucks loaded with limestone per day, potentially endangering the ability of a neighboring farm’s operations, lowering the surrounding area’s water table and impacting the headwaters of the nearby Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, said environmental, ecology, hydrology, geology and city planning experts. These experts include the former county hearing examiner who urged Lee County not to mine there a decade ago.

Troyer Brothers, a potato farming company, has since the late 1980s and early ‘90s owned rectangular parcels of land that stretch 5.6 miles south from State Road 82, just east of Homestead Road and across the street from Lehigh Acres. About 120,000 people live in Lehigh, and many of them commute to Fort Myers or Naples from along that road.

The Troyer Brothers strip of mining operations property, about 1,700 acres, stretches south to east of Estero. The third-generation, family-owned company bought its most recent parcel in 2008, giving it direct access to Corkscrew Road.

The land used to be part of the Density Reduction Groundwater Resource (DR/GR) area of about 81,000 acres. It was established in 1990 by the county commission with the state of Florida to prevent urban sprawl and protect drinking water resources.

Under the ground lies millions of dollars of the non-renewable resource of limestone rock, which is used for building roads, concrete-block houses and other buildings in Florida.

Limestone has another, natural use. It cleans water.

Keeping water clean

Removing a 781-acre chunk of limestone – about 1.22 square miles, the equivalent of 590 football fields – up to 110 feet deep over the next 30 years for rock mining would create a new lake that further exposes the water aquifer, said Kevin Erwin, a Fort Myers consulting ecologist who helped lay the groundwork for Florida Gulf Coast University to exist. He’s disappointed with the Lee County commissioners who rezoned the land from agricultural to mining.

Previous county commissions voted to restrict rock mining to a stretch along Alico Road, east of I-75.

“I don’t know what could be more important to this community right now than an abundant, clean, safe, dependable water supply,” Erwin said. “The science proves the fact that when you put those mines in, it causes a significant immediate and long-term adverse impact to water resources in the immediate and surrounding areas. This is why our recommendations to the board in 2008 said, ‘Don’t spread the mining out throughout the DR/GR.’ Keep it where it exists in the upper Estero watershed. And the impacts there have been significant. And they are irreversible. There are too many mines there, to put it simply. The drainage patterns and water levels have been altered significantly. And there’s no going back.”

The Troyer Brothers property is about 6.6 miles east of Lee County’s water treatment facility, two miles north of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and eight miles east of Southwest Florida International Airport.

Troyer Brothers set up a website, troyerbrothersmine.com, which details the environmental benefits of carving the stone out of the ground. They include: 100 million gallons of water for growing potatoes a year no longer will be needed. There will be 594 acres of on-site wetlands that will be connected with neighboring properties.

Also, there will be 703 acres of conservation easement land. Upon completion of the mine, there will be 1,016 acres of restored land that will be empty space.

Lee County Commissioners declined to answer any questions or comment for this story. Commissioners Brian Hamman, John Manning, Cecil Pendergrass and Ray Sandelli voted in favor of rezoning the land from agricultural to mining. Frank Mann voted against it. Manning’s term since has expired. Newcomer Kevin Ruane, who was not on the board during the mining vote, won the election for his seat.

The Lee County government declined to make any employees available to be interviewed for this story. It released a statement, attributing it to assistant county manager Glen Salyer.

The statement said: “The county’s development process must and does address all issues and concerns, such as traffic, water supply, water quality and wildlife habitats.”

The owner of Troyer Brothers declined to be interviewed. In addition to the mine being approved by the Lee County hearing examiner and commissioners, a decade after being turned down, the mine also has been approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District, a spokesperson for Troyer Brothers said.

But Terrie Lee, who worked for 32 years as a groundwater modeler and a research geologist with the United States Geological Survey, expressed grave concerns over what a rock mine would do to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

“The water immediately around there is going to flow into the lake,” Lee said of the new lake that will result from the mine. “It tends to lower the water table. It’s like when you take the fat man out of the bathtub. If there’s a bunch of material in there, the water level comes up high. You take the fat man out of the water, and the water drops. You’re essentially digging a big pit.

“You have wetlands on each side of the property. Those wetlands make up a surface drainage system. They connect to each other. One flows to the next.”

Some of the water flowing under Troyer Brothers’ property flows to the swamp sanctuary, Lee said.

“This is a tributary to Corkscrew Swamp,” she said. “The mine is in the headwaters of that tributary. Wetlands make up the headwaters. There’s going to be some consequences of creating an open pit.”

The northern part of the Troyer Brothers property sits at 27 feet above sea level, county records show. It’s the highest elevation in the county south of the Caloosahatchee River. The elevation descends to 24 feet above sea level at the southern end of the property, the records show. The elevation continues to descend until reaching the Imperial River.

Lee County owns swaths of land immediately west of the Troyer Brothers property for conservation purposes. It bought a small strip of land from car dealer Sam Galloway in May 2007 for $5.8 million, directly east of the Troyer Brothers property, also for conservation.

Mining between those strips would do a disservice to the taxpayers who already paid to conserve the lands flanking it, Terrie Lee said.

“Why would the county want this, when they clearly have an agenda to do conservation on the headwaters of the Imperial River?” Lee said. “How do you justify putting in a highly industrial land use with being compatible with a groundwater recharge area? How did this happen? Wouldn’t you just want to purchase this land for conservation? Why would you bother buying these other properties? It makes no sense.”

The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary already has been drying up. Another new rock mine in that area would just increase the damage, said Bill Mitsch, an FGCU ecology professor who has studied wetlands for 40 years.

“Dry season will get worse every year,” Mitsch said. “This whole area where this project is going to be, it’s quite vulnerable. I just feel like this is over the top.”

Destroying 214 acres of wetlands, which is what this mine would do, would have long-term repercussions on the surrounding areas, Mitsch said.

“I’ve never heard of a project like this in an urban area,” he said. “It’s a statistical failsafe. That’s my first take on it. I’m just surprised. I’m surprised it got this far politically. Because there’s got to be somebody who says it’s insane to do a mining project right there. If I were involved in this thing as a consultant, I’d spend days reading all this to people. This has the potential to be a water resource disaster for Fort Myers. I just don’t know how they did that.”

The health of the Corkscrew Swamp is critical for the environment, Mitsch said.

“First of all, wetlands have an incredible role in biodiversity,” Mitsch said. “That includes birds, snakes, everything. Secondly, they are nature’s kidneys. When water goes into a wetland, it comes out cleaner. The landscape does the same thing the kidneys do for our body.

“The third thing is, wetlands accumulate carbon. We want to take carbon out of the atmosphere. The best way to do that is to create a wetland. All these wetlands are helping us a little bit, not in a gigantic way, but all of these wetlands are helping us minimize climate change, because of the muck built up in the bottom of the wetlands. That carbon gets stored in that muck. It’s carbon that’s not going up in the atmosphere and creating climate change.”

Other consequences could create a threat to water quality, said Tom Crisman, a freshwater ecologist with 40 years of experience and professor at the University of South Florida.

“That groundwater that’s below that, all of a sudden, it’s at the surface,” Crisman said. “This is the whole problem. How to protect the water beneath the limerock that you’re mining. You have the potential for contaminants to go directly into the aquifer.”

Water supplies are protected by federal, state and local laws; these laws and required permits from multiple entities are not changed by the amendments to zoning. In 2019, the Lee County commission made an amendment by voting to remove “Map 14” from the county’s land management plans. Map 14 dictated where rock mines could and could not go.

Monitoring groundwater levels ensures adequate water supply, the reduction of draw-down, and avoidance of adverse impacts on natural systems. With or without the amendments, limerock mines are required to provide a monitoring system to measure surface and groundwater levels and quality.

The county government said the rock mine would be required to “maintain minimum surface and groundwater levels within the site boundaries and cause only minimal impacts to surface or groundwater levels, quality, and quantity.”

The county government also said the rock mine would “maintain established pre-mining wet and dry season water level elevations and hydro-periods to restore and sustain water resources and adjacent wetland hydrology during and after completion of the mining operations.”

Lee, who spent much of her career making water flow maps for the U.S. government, reviewed Lee County public records that approved the mine. She said the maps provided to the county only showed part of the story.

“Sometimes, all the parts are not shown on the same map,” Lee said. “It’s like a visual. They can show you a lot of maps, but they don’t show you all the pieces.

“It’s purposely drawn so that the pit doesn’t look very deep. Because it sits on the page, and it looks better. It just says, ‘Not to scale.’ But when you draw a map to scale, and you show which geological layers you’re cutting through, there’s lots of stuff that hasn’t been adequately represented. They’re showing the slopes of the embankment, but they’re not showing the full pit.”

Ten years gone

In 2009, the first time the Troyer Brothers owners wanted to rezone their land for mining, the county hearing examiner advised against it, and the county commissioners voted against it.

But even a decade ago, the Lee County government did not delve deep into the environmental and clean water aspects of mining, said Richard Geischeidt, the hearing examiner at the time who is now retired and living in Georgia.

“At the time of those hearings, Troyer Brothers brought in some very well-educated experts in the field to indicate that there would not be any negative impacts,” Geischeidt said. “The county didn’t have anybody to counteract that.

“Unfortunately, what you see in these hearings, is money talks. I don’t mean that in the sense that anybody has been bribing anybody. But they’ll hire experts who have very impressive resumes that will testify in favor of projects. And the county, they never really went out and hired any experts of their own. They would rely on people who worked for the county, and they didn’t have anywhere near the background of the experts in favor of the mine.”

Geischeidt, who earned a law degree from the University of Louisville and a masters in tax law at New York University, practiced law in Boca Raton for 25 years. He worked as a hearing examiner in Lee County a decade ago. During that time, he recommended approving one mine and denying the Troyer Brothers mine.

“One thing you’ve got to remember,” Geischeidt said. “When we heard these cases, and we approve a mine, it’s not what we want. I’ve had a lot of hearings over the years. The county ordinances allowed it. And I have to approve it. You just apply the facts to the law or the ordinances, and you get a certain result. And that’s what I did.”

Traffic congestion

As a condition for approving the mine, the commissioners told Troyer Brothers all mining traffic must leave the site from State Road 82 and not Corkscrew Road. This would add about 1,600 dump trucks per day during peak operations to State Road 82.

“My concern that I’ve always had, mining can be very incompatible with residential homes in the area,” said former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, who now splits his time between Lee County and Oregon. He voted against the mine the first time around. “Mining from the explosions cause problems with breaking concrete, damaging foundations. And then you have the tremendous truck traffic that results from transporting all the mining material. That’s a greater impact on roads.”

The traffic situation alarmed Spikowski as well.

“Now they’re going to have fully loaded rock trucks alongside them,” Spikowski said of Lehigh Acres commuters. “They drive fast and aggressive. A lot of people tried hard to prevent this from happening. The county, it’s just totally dispiriting to me.”

Farm disruption

Sakata Farms, located adjacent and east of the Troyer Brothers property, has been feeling dispirited as well, said Randy Johnson, branch manager of Sakata Farms. The farm experiments on crops to see how they respond to various illnesses.

“There were very few differences in the proposal this time than 10 years ago,” Johnson said. “One of the differences was the other proposal had a berm between us and the Troyer driveway. Now that’s gone.

“We challenged the deletion of Map 14. And we lost that case. Once Map 14 went away, our lawsuit on the comp plan amendment, that went away too, because there was no more Map 14. The only thing we had left was the zoning. We had a lawsuit where we took it to circuit court.”

Those legal efforts appear to be unsuccessful as well, Johnson said.

“I pretty much think that we’re going to throw in the towel,” he said. “We’re just swimming against the current here. It’s going to happen. There’s nothing we can do about it. However, we are extremely concerned.”

Sakata Farms has been communicating with the Florida Department of Transportation over additional concerns the mining traffic will endanger Sakata Farms employees and their commutes.

“It’s creating a very dangerous situation for us to get in and out of our property, as you might imagine,” Johnson said. “Our driveway enters SR 82. It’s about 60 feet away from their road. You can imagine, you’ve got a big dump truck right there turning right. You’re trying to turn as well. How do you see?”

Exiting Sakata Farms, to head west, a driver first must head east to Bell Road and do a U-turn. But as Johnson pointed out, the Bell Road mine was approved for a more extensive rock mine this summer by the Lee County commissioners.

“The way it is right now, if we don’t prevail in our challenge to FDOT, I’d have to turn right and deal with all the traffic coming out of Troyer,” Johnson said. “And then go to Bell Road, where there’s a mine, and fight that traffic and make a U-turn to go back to Fort Myers. It’s insane.”

Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter).


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