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USACE Lake Belt Permits


1. What is the "Lake Belt?" Why is it important?

The Lake Belt is an approximately 57,515-acre area that was established by the Florida Legislature in 1997 for the purpose of implementing the Miami-Dade County Lake Belt Plan. The area lies west of Miami and east of Everglades National Park.

Rock has been mined in southern Miami-Dade County since the early 1950s. In south Florida, groundwater occurs so near the surface of the ground, that when rock is mined, even in shallow pits, the excavation areas fill with water and man-made "lakes" are formed. The "lakes" that form after rock is mined are the feature after which the "Lake Belt" is named.

Mining in the Lake Belt area has thus far created approximately 4,900 acres of lakes.

The rock mined in south Florida is an economically important commodity - it provides the materials used for building homes and the other facilities and infrastructure that support the populated portions of the region.

2. Why are the mines in this area of Dade County.

The Lake Belt area was acquired by the mining industry over time as that location proved productive and economic for their purposes. No law forbids the continuation of that use in those areas.

3. What is the relationship between the State of Florida's Lakebelt Master Plan and the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project?

The Corps as a permitting agency is neither a proponent nor an opponent of the Lakebelt mining plan which was an agreement reached between the miners and the state. The miners filed applications for Clean Water Act permits, and the Corps evaluated those applications according to the standards and procedures established by Corps regulations and policies. Each of the applications was examined according on its own merits.

Corps planners and engineers studying the future of the Everglades were aware of the pending applications, the details of the plan and state permitting and have taken those factors into account in planning the Everglades restoration.

4. What role does the Corps play in the permitting process?

The Corps, under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, is responsible for regulating the placement of fill in wetlands. The Corps, however, is only one of many governmental entities involved in permitting activities like those occurring in the Lake Belt. To fully appreciate the role of the Army Corps of Engineers in decisions that allow these types of actions, an understanding of the local and state governmental land use and regulatory laws and programs is also needed.

Although the Corps was not charged with regulating these types of activities until the late 1970s, the mining companies have always been subject to the State and County land use, zoning, construction, and wellfield protection requirements.

The Corps' permitting program must work in concert with the underlying local governmental decisions and programs that have established the framework of allowable land uses and the basis upon which people have acquired property or have developed "investment-backed" expectations regarding the use of their land.

In this case, the Corps permit authorizes placement of fill in wetlands. This includes fill resulting from land clearing (where soil is removed and piled to expose rock) and the construction of temporary haul roads and pads for processing plants. The Corps does not regulate excavation activities that do not involve a discharge of fill; but, when excavation involves fill, the Corps must evaluate the indirect effects caused by the excavation.

The decision to issue these permits is based on consideration of the direct effects caused by the fill and the secondary effects resulting from the excavation.

5. What does the Corps permit do?

The Lake Belt permit authorizes mining for the next ten years. The permit authorizes filling of 5,409 acres of wetlands for mining-related purposes. The permit also requires the mining industry to fund the acquisition and restoration of 7,500 acres of wetlands.

Restoration activities include elimination of the invasive exotic Melaleuca tree to facilitate reestablishment of historic Everglades vegetation and wildlife habitat and construction of littoral marshes. Periodic reviews of the status of the environmental mitigation are also required under the Corps' permit.

6. Isn't there a 50 year permit for a much larger acreage?

No. The Corps would have to take conduct a full public interest review to grant permission for further mining after the current ten year permits expires.

7. How did the Corps come to its decision to permit continued mining activity in the Lake Belt?

The Corps used a watershed-based approach in its permit review process. Because the Lake Belt is at the "center" of many interests, some of which may actually compete at times, the process of developing the Lake Belt permits was open and included a great deal of coordination.

When projects are as complex as this one, the process provides for interactive dialogue with the applicants and other federal resource agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In this case, the Corps also coordinated closely with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Miami-Dade County.

The Corps review recognized a public need for the mined rock products. It was determined that because the product of these activities are used to construct homes and build roads and the other infrastructure that supports the region, the decision to allow permitting to continue would benefit, not only the mining companies, but the public at large.

Thorough consideration was given to the myriad issues and interests in the region. The final permitting decision balances restoration goals, public concerns and private property rights.

8. Does the Corps permit support commercial mining rights over the right of the public to a safe, clean and healthy environment?

First and foremost, the Corps' decision complies with the law - it ensures that the permitted action is not contrary to the public good.

Through the terms and conditions of the permit, the Corps' balances the rights of property owners with the need to protect the natural resources of the region including the local water supply and the Everglades.

The mining companies were first required to avoid impacts to the greatest extent possible and then to minimize all unavoidable impacts. Only after impacts were minimized was mitigation of impacts brought into consideration. Through mitigation, the mining companies will be required to contribute to the enhancement and restoration of degraded areas of the historic Everglades system.

9. Why didn't the Corps just consider buying the land instead of permitting the companies to mine it?

The Corps does not have the authority under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to undertake land acquisition. However, the permits do require the mining industry to fund acquisition and restoration of Lake Belt lands in the Pennsuco wetlands, the area closest to the Everglades.

10. Was the possible effect of mining on wildlife habitat considered?

Yes, however this concern was thoroughly evaluated and is being addressed through the conditions place on the permits. As a result of those conditions, we expect no net loss of wetland functions and values, including wildlife habitat. The Lake Belt wetlands currently host predominantly exotic, invasive plants (Melaleuca); resulting in degraded wildlife habitat. Melaleuca eradication and other restoration efforts on lands acquired for mitigation will encourage reestablishment of native plant and animal species and communities. Mining will degrade some wetlands, but the resulting decrease in wildlife habitat is compensated for by increased habitat values in the mitigated areas. Additional ecological benefits are provided from small areas of marsh that will be created around each completed mine pit.

As a condition of the permits, periodic evaluations of the restoration activities will also be required.

11. But aren't their endangered wood storks in the area?

There are wood storks nests on public park lands near the mining area but miles away from the mining. The Corps is aware of those wood stork nests and the fact that the nesting birds forage in the open canopy areas of the Lake Belt and the nearby Pennsuco wetlands. Without the Melaleuca removal required by the plan, and funded by the mitigation fees these open areas would be overrun by vegetation and unavailable to the storks for forage.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has primary jurisdiction over endangered species issues notified the Corps in December 2001 that it would not seek higher-level review of the project. The wood stork issues have been adequately resolved.

12. Won't there be seepage problems?

The permit requires the miners to avoid or compensate for increases in groundwater seepage attributed to mining activities. They bear the economic risk that it may prove expensive to control.

Any modifications to seepage control that are necessitated by any public use of the borrow areas, for example for water storage, must be addressed in designing those projects.

13. Why are all of the impacts immediate but the benefits put off into the far future?

The public will receive benefits in the near term. Among these benefits are in purchase of private lands for public ownership, environmental restoration and preservation as well as habitat enhancement. In fact under state permitting, the miners began paying mitigation fees before the latest Corps permit was issued.

14. The miners are paying a fee per ton. Is there some assurance that enough restoration will actually occur?

The Corps recognizes the fee per ton assessment as the administrative method by which the mining industry will fund the restoration, but the permit decision is based on ecological functional replacement. The fee schedule was based on best-cost estimates for acquiring, restoring, and maintaining lands in the Pennsuco area. The fee has an inflation adjustment, and a provision for periodic re-evaluation. An interagency committee oversees expenditures.

15. Is there a mitigation plan for the entire fifty years of mining?

Not at this time. The Pennsuco area is identified as the initial mitigation location and will provide compensation for the first 10 years of mining. The permit requires periodic reviews to identify additional compensatory mitigation sites prior to continued mining. The identification of future sites and the extent of mitigation needed will be based in part on the evaluation of the effectiveness of the Pennsuco mitigation.

16. Isn't this mitigation awfully cheap?

The Corps requires mitigation in an attempt to prevent net losses of wetlands values. Mitigation is not imposed as a fine, penalty or disincentive. According to its standard processes, the Corps determined that the mitigation obtained would be sufficient to offset the impacts of mining. Nevertheless, the Corps has determined that the fee per ton impact fee will approximate the costs of mitigation that are currently charged by mitigation banks in the area.

17. Has the effect of rock mining on the drinking water supply been considered?

Yes. Chapter 24-12.1, Code of Miami-Dade County, provides specific wellfield protection rules, including a prohibition of mining within a setback distance from the wellheads. The permit includes interim, more stringent restrictions on mining operations and wellfield monitoring developed by the Corps, industry, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Miami-Dade County, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

18. Were other alternatives or other sources of rock considered?

The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Mining in the Lake Belt considers other sources of rock. If the rock were mined from other State mines or from sources outside the State, there would be considerable cost to relocate the rail network, aggregate and cement plants, and trucking infrastructure that currently distributes the rock products from the Lake Belt. Such a move would also negatively impact the Miami-Dade County and Florida State economies. In addition, other sites also have high quality and regionally important habitat.