FL allowing mining of state-owned wetlands has a certain smell to it

May 20, 2021 7:00 am

The Suwanee River is shown in a postcard dated 1908. Planned mining operations in nearby wetlands threaten this and other Northeast Florida Rivers. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I got another speeding ticket a couple of weeks ago. I’m not proud of that fact. It’s my first in quite a while, but in 40 or so years of driving Florida’s highways I’ve racked up enough infractions to qualify as a Leadfoot First Class.

My excuse is that it’s genetic. My dad, who taught me to drive, was an inveterate speed demon who collected tickets the way trophy hunters of the 19th Century collected taxidermied animal heads.

If my dad were still driving today the way he did back then, he’d be in serious trouble. The law now says each ticket costs you more, and if you rack up a certain number of tickets you will lose your license.

But what applies to traffic infractions does not apply to companies that violate state and federal environmental regulations — or so it would appear from the strange case of a company called Chemours, which is planning a big new mine near Starke.

“It’s an interesting mess that nobody seems much interested in,” a Starke resident named Paul Still, a retired University of Florida hazardous waste expert, told me.

“Interesting” is a serious understatement, sort of like saying, “Personal injury lawyer John Morgan is not averse to appearing occasionally in TV ads.”

This case involves a major chemical company that wants to expand its mining onto taxpayer-owned property, where it would chew up more than 700 acres of wetlands. And it’s looking like it will get a greenlight from the state despite the fact that it has complied with environmental regulations about as well as I have complied with the speed limit.

Does that last part sound familiar? Here’s a hint: I have come to think of this mining permit as “Piney Point II: Electric Boogaloo.”

You remember Piney Point, right? The big environmental crisis last month that made international headlines? The one that resulted from state regulators repeatedly giving a polluter a break despite its history of disobeying the rules?

But gee, I’m sure this time things will turn out just fine! And if it doesn’t, at least it’s nowhere near the state’s largest estuary, Tampa Bay. It’s way north, up near … our most famous river.

The scent of mining

The Chemours Maxville Mine in Northeast Florida. The company wants to exploit mineral rights at nearby wetlands. Credit: John S. Quarterman, Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, Little, Santa Fe, and Suwannee River Wetlands Coalition

Starke is a classic Florida small town, the seat of bucolic Bradford County. But it’s not one you’re likely to see the Chamber of Commerce promoting to tourists.

That’s because its main claim to fame is as the home of Florida State Prison — although I can tell you from personal observation that next door to the prison is an amazing and historic cemetery. Inmates who die or are executed are buried beneath grave markers made from license plate blanks. One belongs to Giuseppe Zangara, who tried to assassinate FDR in Miami in 1933 and instead killed the mayor of Chicago. When I visited, I noticed his last name was misspelled.

But the region also boasts a multitude of springs, lakes, creeks, and rivers, including the Santa Fe and the famous Suwannee, celebrated in our problematic state song. Overseeing these watery state assets is the Suwannee River Water Management District, which in 2015 spent $3.9 million to buy more than 2,000 acres of forest and swamp near Starke from the timber company Rayonier.

“It seemed like a good purchase,” Tom Mirti, the district’s deputy executive director, told me this week.

District officials figured they could use that land for a variety of environmentally beneficial projects, including creating a wildlife corridor for bears and other wide-ranging animals between the Ocala National Forest and the Osceola National Forest, he said.

There was just one problem: Rayonier kept the mineral rights to the property. Then the timber giant turned around and leased those mineral rights to Chemours. And there wasn’t a thing the water agency could say about it.

“Chemours” sounds like the name of a cheap brand of cologne (I picture TV ads saying, “Chemours — what a man smells like … when he smells a woman!”). It’s actually the name of a big chemical company that was created as a spinoff from corporate behemoth DuPont de Nemours Inc. six years ago.

DuPont, of course, has long enjoyed a spotless environmental record — ha ha, just kidding! DuPont’s record is pretty bad. I mean, it belongs in the Bad Record Hall of Fame right next to Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck.”

How bad is it? After DuPont spun off Chemours in 2015, the new company sued the old one over whether DuPont hid the true cost of settling all of the pollution-related health claims against it, many of which it passed off to Chemours.

Chemours inherited some valuable DuPont property when it was created — Teflon, to name one. But it also wound up saddled with “up to $1 billion in environmental liabilities,” according to the Wilmington, Del., News Journal. That’s because it was assuming “the legal and remediation costs for 190 contaminated sites across the country.”

In other words, this is totally the kind of responsible, reliable corporate citizen we want operating here in Florida.

DuPont spent decades digging up heavy metals such as titanium from mines scattered along an ancient dune ridge in North Florida. That’s one business Chemours took over after 2015.

But just two years later, the new company faced serious trouble. Inspectors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection had swooped in and looked over the mine nearest to Starke. They didn’t like what they found.

First, they smacked the company with a warning letter. Apparently, the warning was not heeded because, in 2019, the Chemours Company was hit with a “consent order” — basically an agreement to clean up its act. There were problems galore: no plan for dealing with the sludge in the mine’s settling ponds, waste that spilled through silt fences and never got cleaned up, releasing waste that was too high in radium and iron, to name a few items.

As it happens, 2019 is also when Chemours applied for its first permit to start the new mine on the water district property.

Applying for more environmental permits while admitting you failed to comply with the old ones requires a certain amount of hubris, don’t you think? (“Hubris — what a man smells like when he’s been rolling in raw sewage right before time to show up at a fancy restaurant for a date!”)

Charging a toll?

One of the permits the company needed was from Bradford County, itself.

County commissioners held a hearing on the permit a mere month after Chemours applied for it, giving scant notice to the public about this important agenda item. Nevertheless, word spread through the small town and the rural countryside, and people showed up like it was a pre-pandemic Black Friday sale on big-screen TVs.

“The Bradford County Courthouse’s commission hall was packed with concerned citizens for the meeting and decision,” WUFT-FM reported. “The line outside the hall wrapped around the door and through the hallway, leading some to criticize that not everyone could hear or see the meeting fairly.”

Paul Still was there. He stood up to read a letter outlining all the deficiencies in the proposed permit, in particular how it failed to protect the area’s economically important environment.

But the commissioners okayed the mining permit by a vote of 3-2. According to Still, the basic arguments were, “We need jobs no matter what!” versus “Hey, this is moving too fast, slow down!” I guess this is one instance when being a speed demon won the day, regardless of whether it was the right thing to do.

Earlier this month, the DEP published a small notice in the Bradford County Telegraph announcing its intent to approve another permit that Chemours needs — in spite of the company’s record.

According to the notice, Chemours intends to rip up 740 acres of the supposedly protected swamps and marshes. Bear in mind that the water management district bought this land to protect the flood plain, not tear it apart. Yet, here’s another state agency saying it’s okay to do just that.

To make up for all that destruction, the notice said, the company is promising to create 710 acres of new wetlands and “enhance” another 136 acres. But experts have found that creating man-made wetlands rarely if ever works — they tend to turn into open ponds. Meanwhile, “enhancing” wetlands generally means yanking out any exotic plants, which doesn’t make the wetland function any better.

“The project is not expected to cause or contribute to violations of water quality standards,” the DEP notice says. That’s one of those sentences that makes you go “hmmm, really?” Sort of like hearing someone say, “Kim Kardashian is actually a shy and retiring sort.”

I contacted the DEP for some comment on this, but the agency failed to respond except to acknowledge receipt of my inquiry. In the DEP’s defense, I recall an initiative under former Gov. Jeb Bush to deny a longtime polluter a new permit based on its record of violations. It led to a lawsuit, followed by a settlement that gave the company its permit anyway and that was that. The Florida Legislature has fixed the permitting system so that “yes” is often the only answer allowed to a lot of hare-brained, destructive plans.

As for Chemours, company spokeswoman Lisa Randall said the water district knew when it purchased the property that mining would probably occur there. She said the company will work with the state to create “a post-mining reclamation program for this area that once completed will enhance the area for long-term preservation for this watershed.”

So, then, to sum it all up: A company with a bad environmental record and lots of legal liabilities for past errors wants to rip up publicly-owned property, including wetlands in the watershed for important springs and rivers. The local government rushed through an approval, despite lots of residents having concerns, and now state regulators are on the verge of signing off on it as well.

And the taxpayer-funded agency that owns the property gets no say in this whatsoever.

If I were the Suwannee River water district folks, I know what I’d do. I would copy what the state does with people like me who rack up lots of speeding tickets.

I would tell the Chemours folks that they’re certainly entitled to go in and exercise their right to mine that taxpayer-owned property — but they have to pay for crossing the rest of the state’s land to get to it, and the price will be pretty high based on their repeated infractions.

Based on the Chemours record, I would set the toll pretty high, maybe around $2 million, and raise it even higher if they mess up, even on something minor. If nothing else, it would help pay for the clean-up should Chemours mess up this site too.

Obviously, if it dumps a lot of pollution here, the company would forfeit its right to mine anywhere else — just like someone who racks up too many speeding tickets forfeits the right to drive.

I ran this idea past Tony Mirti, but he told me he didn’t think it was legal. So maybe we should encourage our state legislators — who want all the voters to think they’re friends of nature — to pass a law making it legal.

Maybe we can persuade them to take such a bold step by promising to name a cologne after them: “This is what the Florida Legislature smells like.” Of course, that might not sell too well, because usually it smells too much like a giant size bottle of Hubris.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.