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Dust settles on mining operations in Hernando County

Brooksville-area roads once clogged by caravans of rock trucks aren't nearly as full of the behemoths these days.

Local mining operations, once supported by hundreds of employees, have shrunk.

Mining, one of Hernando County's bedrock, heritage industries, has been hit hard by the wounded housing market and the economic free-fall.

The why is simple, said Allen Keesler, chief executive for E.R. Jahna Industries.

"If you're not building, you're not doing anything else,'' Kees­ler said, noting that his company's business has dropped by 75 percent since the recent boom years.

Jahna operates mines throughout Florida, including an operation near Ridge Manor.

Keesler said he's never seen it so bad. He has had to lay off employees, hoping there will be a turnaround. But he is not optimistic about the immediate future.

"I see nothing on the horizon that's going to change this,'' Kees­ler said. "We're in for a tough dry spell. The trick in business is, how do you stay afloat until everything turns around.''

As for the impact of the federal stimulus funding designed to jump-start projects and put people back to work, Keesler said he has not seen that happen.

More than 18,000 acres in Hernando County are dedicated to mining operations, and the industry has been ongoing for more than a century. The full range of mining takes place in the county, from the underwater mining done by Jahna to the hard- and soft-rock mining by Cemex. The rock is used as building blocks for other products, including cement.

The mining operations at Florida Rock Industries, a subsidiary of Vulcan Materials Co., are winding down on its 4,000 acres north and east of U.S. 98, with the hard rock gone. Workers there are extracting the last of the soft rock for use in agricultural projects, said Michael McHugh, the county's business development director.

That property is what has been proposed for a free-standing, city-size development known as the Quarry Preserve.

West of there is one of the operations run by Cemex, an international company. That operation is nearing the end of its hard-rock mining, and Cemex operates two cement kilns there.

Further south, in the area of Cobb and Yontz roads, is the larger of Cemex's Hernando sites, which is still mining hard rock and where two more cement kilns operate. The site had in the past been operated by Florida Crushed Stone and, then for a few years, Rinker, an Australia-based firm.

Local and corporate officials at Cemex did not return calls to the Times, but recent corporate announcements reflect the challenge of the industry.

Cemex and joint venture partner Ready Mix USA LLC recently sold 12 active U.S. quarries and other assets to SPO Partners & Co. for $420 million. The quarries, none of which were in Florida, were deemed "non-strategic,'' according to a Feb. 22 news release.

"This asset divestment marks another milestone in Cemex's efforts to regain its financial flexibility,'' the release states. Other recent milestones have included debt refinancing, issuing notes and selling operations in Australia.

Statistics from the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation show a marked decline in the numbers of employees working in the mining industry in the county in recent years — from 457 at the end of 2005 to 76 at the end of 2008. More recent figures statewide show that mining and logging jobs fell another 6 percent from December 2008 through December 2009.

The statistics don't tell the full story, though, said McHugh, who worked in the mining industry for 20 years before joining the county.

For every person operating the machinery to extract rock, there are several people who support them and haul the rock to its next destination, he said. Hard times for the mining industry mean a ripple effect of hard times for lots of other people, he said.

"Mining is one of the legacy industries this county was built on, like timber and agriculture and citrus,'' McHugh said. "It's a natural-resource-based industry. It's what people used to do to make a living.''

The industry will return, he said, once the economy does.

"It has been a big part of our past, though not a huge part of today,'' McHugh said. "Still, I don't think cement is ever going to be replaced.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Dust settles on mining operations in Hernando County 02/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 27, 2010 1:03pm]
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