MIAMI (July 17, 2007) -- A federal court in Miami has blocked a controversial set of permits for a massive mining project located near Everglades National Park that would have threatened to contaminate Miami-Dade County's largest freshwater wellfield. In a 177-page opinion issued late on Friday, Judge William M. Hoeveler sharply criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for “ongoing disregard” for critical health and environmental risks including the recent discovery of benzene in the drinking water wells.
“The mines threatened to poison the drinking water of millions of Miami-Dade residents by introducing cancer-causing chemicals and dangerous bacteria into local wells,” said Brad Sewell, NRDC attorney. “The federal government abdicated its responsibility to protect these communities and our environment. Fortunately, the judge decided to right this egregious wrong.”
In addition to water supply dangers, the lawsuit filed nearly five years ago by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club, and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) charged that sprawling deep-pit limestone mining operations would threaten the multi-billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
The same judge ruled in March 2006 that the Army Corps, along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, violated federal law by ignoring the threat the project posed to the environment when they approved it in April 2002. But because the earlier ruling did not actually set aside the Army Corps permits, the Corps has allowed mining to continue while it studies the problem.
“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,” noted Judge Hoeveler in a stinging opinion, which chastised the agency for its “apparently unyielding determination to approve mining, regardless of the demonstrated risks of adverse impacts,” and a “disregard” for public participation.
“The project would have destroyed endangered Everglades wetlands and blocked water flows into Everglades National Park,” said NPCA Regional Director John Adornato. “The court is putting the brakes on a terrible idea.”
Scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Fish & Wildlife Service had previously objected to the project because the mining pits would have destroyed thousands of acres of rare wildlife habitat and forced more water to seep out of the Everglades. The agencies’ objections were withdrawn by the Bush administration.
The new ruling applies only to the mining sites closest to the wells, allowing work to continue on areas farther away until the Corps finishes its environmental studies, estimated to be one to two years away.
“The scientific evidence is loud and clear, but the administration didn't want to hear it,” said Barbara Lange of the Sierra Club. “The people of Miami-Dade County should not have to subsidize these companies’ profits with their health.”
In recent years, scientists have become increasingly concerned that the current half-mile buffer zone around 15 wells near the planned site is dangerously inadequate. In 2005 and 2006, the County detected benzene at levels above the applicable limit at several of the wells, and in the surrounding groundwater. Although benzene levels appear to have abated, petroleum-based blasting materials used by the mining companies have been considered the most likely source.
Plaintiffs in the suit have long warned the mining projects could allow potentially lethal parasites, including cryptosporidium, to enter the drinking water system. In 1993, water-borne cryptosporidium caused 400,000 people in Milwaukee to experience intestinal illness. More than 4,000 were hospitalized, and at least 50 deaths were attributed to the disease. Because of this and other contamination incidents, EPA has strengthened drinking water regulations to protect against disease-causing organisms.
The plaintiffs are represented by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, and the Miami law firm of Coffey Burlington, PL.