Wednesday, March 24, 2010

From the March 2010 issue of Poder Magazine

Cement Over Miami

In the aggregate, the federal stewards of Everglades restoration are moving quickly to preserve wetland destruction for generations to come

by Kirk Nielsen

You wake up one bright South Florida morning, make some coffee, and head for the balcony of your downtown Miami condo, laptop in hand. You feel the cement floor caress the bottoms of your feet. As you step outside, the balmy air hits your face; you gaze westward. You notice the sunlight glimmering off a beautiful multicolored river of cars on I-95, all in one lane because of a construction project. You know that the Miami River is also down there somewhere, fantastically obscured by an awe-inspiring panoply of bridges and roadway overpasses. Oh, there’s a pretty little patch of water, you say to yourself and smile. You scan the panorama, take in the grid of streets, avenues, parking lots, and marvel at this vast pastel-colored tapestry of cement, concrete and asphalt, as far as the eye can see. Where does all this concrete come from, you wonder. It’s miraculous.

You sit at your balcony breakfast table and take a sip of coffee while the computer boots up to the Herald. Headline: ‘Lake Belt’ mining OK’d in Northwest Miami-Dade. Lakes in the Everglades? You thought it was just a huge river, as in the River of Grass. Being an educated sort, you knew that during the Ice Age humongous glaciers descended into the northern United States and carved out holes that filled with water when the glacier receded. But not this far south. You read on and the news is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved permits allowing rock mining companies to blast and excavate limestone from 10,000 acres of Everglades wetlands over the next 20 years. The “lakes” are the resulting craters, which fill with water because they’re in the middle of North America’s largest wetland. Ah, American ingenuity.

In fact, each year the Lake Belt produces 60 million tons of limestone aggregate, a main ingredient in cement, concrete, and asphalt. That’s almost half of the aggregate the state of Florida consumes in a year. Wow, you think. You look up, take in your 41st floor view again. How many lakes’ worth of limestone went into this skyline?

Of course, God didn’t create the Everglades only to provide human beings with aggregate. He also made them to create jobs. Approximately 7,000 to 14,000 of them, the Miami-Dade Limestone Products Association estimates. That’s probably a little exaggerated, you chuckle, but still, folks in California should be so lucky. They probably wish the Army Corps would approve some permits to clear-cut a couple dozen square miles of trees in the Redwood and Sequoia National Forests right about now. A single giant sequoia tree could probably create at least a hundred jobs. But the Army Corps doesn’t handle deforestation proposals; it tends to specialize in waterways and wetlands projects involving heavy earth-moving machinery. Sorry Northern California.

You look up again, sip some more coffee, and revel in your solitude, because you’re one of about ten residents who’s ever actually lived in your highrise. It’s like your own little cement mountain top. Reading on, you learn that the Sierra Club and other environmental conservation groups recently won an eight-year-long federal court battle aimed at banning rock mining in the Everglades - jobs and aggregate be damned. The fight was over some permits the Army Corps hastily issued to rock miners in 2002. Federal judge William Hoeveler said the Army Corps didn’t consider whether the rock miners had viable alternatives to the Everglades from which to mine rock. So he rescinded the permits. An appeals panel in Atlanta upheld the judge’s decision.

Moreover, Sierra Club argued that toxic chemicals in the rock quarries could seep into the Biscayne Aquifer—the primary source of drinking water for Miami-Dade—because the aquifer flows right underneath the darn “lakes.” In 2005, as the trial continued, chemists detected benzene in the Lake Belt’s H2o (although none in drinking supplies).

But eight days after the appeals court ruling, the Army Corps approved new permits for mining companies in the Lake Belt!

You’re thirsty, so you head inside and grab the Brita filter water pitcher from the fridge. Do these things filter out benzene, you wonder. (They don’t.) Back on the balcony, you open a related article about an Everglades restoration project to put part of the Tamiami Trail on a bridge. After ten years of talk, it’s finally underway. Of course that can only mean more cement - don’t you just love it!

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