Court Blocks Controversial Permits, Says Federal Agencies Ignored Key Impacts

MIAMI (March 22, 2006) -- A federal district court in Miami today blocked a set of permits for a massive mining project located adjacent to Everglades National Park and which surrounds Miami-Dade County's largest freshwater wellfield. In a nearly 200-page opinion, Judge William M Hoevler ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and 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.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) filed the suit to stop the project nearly four years ago, warning that deep-pit limestone mining on more than 5,000 acres would endanger the Miami-Dade County water supply and threaten the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan's $8 billion program to restore thousands of acres of wetlands that have suffered from a century of pollution, water diversion and habitat loss.

"The mine would have poisoned the drinking water of millions of Miami-Dade residents by introducing dangerous bacteria into local wells," said NRDC attorney Brad Sewell. "The federal government agencies abdicated their responsibility to protect these communities and their environment. Fortunately the judge is here to spell out the errors of their ways."

The plaintiffs argued that the permits in the Lakebelt area violated various federal environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Army Corps issued a dozen permits to 10 mining companies in 2002, greenlighting a key portion of long-term plan that would eventually mine a total of more than 22,000 acres in the eastern Everglades.

"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 pay to clean up their drinking water fouled by mining companies, and they should not have to subsidize these companies' profits with their health."

Federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish & Wildlife Service itself, had previously objected to the project because the mining pits would have destroyed thousands of acres of rare habitat and force more water to seep out of the Everglades. The agencies' objections were withdrawn by the Bush administration.

Just last Friday, the Miami Herald reported new findings - based on dye tests - that strongly suggest a half-mile buffer zone around 15 wells near the planned site might be dangerously inadequate. 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 project would have destroyed endangered Everglades wetlands and blocked water flows into Everglades National Park," said John Adornato of NPCA. "We're pleased the court is putting the breaks on a terrible idea."

The conservation groups submitted evidence to the Corps showing the agency's proposed mitigation scheme - acquisition of land in the Pennsuco wetlands west of the mining area - is not happening. What's more, fees paid by mining companies are far too low to cover the cost of the land, which has jumped 800 percent from estimates made when the permits were issued.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, and the Miami law firm of Burlington, Weil, Schwiep, Kaplan & Blonsky P.A.