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Hernando mining company doesn't keep promises

Suspicion gets tiresome even for journalists. Sometimes we wonder why we can't just believe corporations and government officials. We wonder why we have to doubt what's right there in their plans, why we always fall into the role of the skeptical pain in the neck.

Then we take in a sight like the deep, sheer-walled mining pit off Buczak Road in northern Hernando County, the one that was supposed to have begun looking like a pasture about now, and we think — Oh, yeah. That's why.

Seven years ago, Vulcan Materials Co. pitched its plan to mine the property with an ambitious, innovative proposal to restore it.

"This was supposed to be a model of reclamation,'' said property owner Frank Buczak, 60, who owns the land with his wife, Beverly.

"The question is: Why are we still looking at a big hole in the ground?''

Well, mostly because Vulcan didn't keep all the promises made in its contract with the Buczaks or in the mining plan it filed with the county.

Let's start with the ones Vulcan said it did keep.

As agreed in the contract, Vulcan paid the Buczaks $2.3-million for the limestone on the 130-acre parcel and wrapped up its mining operation there within six years.

Vulcan said it also would have fulfilled its obligation to start restoring the property by July, except that Frank Buczak refuses to sign off on the reclamation. Vulcan has sued in Hernando Circuit Court, asking a judge to force Buczak to do so.

But Buczak said there's good reason he has rejected the new proposal: It looks nothing like the one in the contract — which brings us to the promises Vulcan didn't keep, according to court documents.

The original plan shows the mining pit would be restored to a shallow bowl of pasture, one the Buczaks said they would be proud to pass on to their five grandchildren. Its lowest point was to be 92 feet above sea level, and the edges were to slope 1 foot down for every 20 feet across.

Vulcan's new plan calls for the reclaimed pit to be a dozen feet lower and the sides about three times as steep.

"They basically want to leave me with a big drainage retention pond,'' Buczak said.

One reason the company can't adhere to the original plan, he said: It broke other promises by digging out more rock than it had paid for (the subject of a counterclaim by the Buczaks against Vulcan).

Vulcan mined deeper than the contract allowed and stripped away nearly two-thirds of a proposed 300-foot-wide wooded buffer on the east side of the property. It also removed a 100-foot-wide strip on an adjoining mining property that was supposed to buffer the Buczaks' property once it had been restored, said the Buczaks' lawyer, Bruce Snow.

Another promise Vulcan broke, Snow said, was the one it touted before the County Commission as a new approach to restoring mining land.

Vulcan lawyer Scott Steady said then that, in effect, reclamation would begin even as mining progressed — using clay from each new portion of the mine to fill in areas where rock had been removed previously.

The mining plan, Steady told the commission, "specified that no area greater than approximately 25 acres would be actually mined at any given time,'' according to the meeting's minutes.

Grant Tolbert, the recently retired county development director, noted that this process is described in the narrative of the mining plan, not in the conditions the plan placed on mining operations.

"We never enforce the narrative,'' Tolbert said.

Which I took to mean that mines can lie in one part of their plan but not another. That's hardly reassuring. Neither was my conversation with Steady.

He pointed out that, because the land held less rock and more clay than expected, Vulcan mined only about half of the 100 acres allowed in its contract.

But he didn't try to claim the company had kept its vow to fill mined property with clay as the work progressed. He didn't deny the company had cut into buffers and setbacks. He didn't seem to think it was a big deal that the new reclamation plan differed from the one in the Buczaks' contract.

"The important thing, in the end, is that the mine will be reclaimed,'' Steady said.

Yes, but that's not the only important thing. It's also important that Vulcan protects buffers and returns the land as close as possible to its pre-mined state.

It is important that the county doesn't allow companies to make hollow promises in meetings and documents. It's important that the public can believe what the mines say about reclamation.

And really, the more you know, the less likely you are to believe it works as advertised.

First of all, the county's reclamation requirements apply only to pits dug after the county's 1993 mining ordinance was passed, which excludes the vast majority of the county's more than 15,000 acres of mined land.

And true reclamation is almost as hard as raising the dead.

Mining strips away everything living from the land — the often diverse and wildlife-rich collections of trees, shrubs and grass. Reclamation, at best, replaces this with a layer of sod or rows of seedlings. And in the one example I've seen in Hernando, on land owned by Florida Rock Industries, many of the replanted trees had died, and the land they grew on was sterile rubble.

Nevertheless, the county's former mining inspector gave that restoration effort a passing grade without ever leaving the truck.

So I'm afraid we have no choice but to be skeptics when it comes to reclamation.

Otherwise, we're just suckers.

Unkept promises

Here, according to court records and interviews, is how Vulcan Materials Co. failed to live up to plans to mine and restore land in northern Hernando.

Vulcan mined deeper than planned and stripped away much of a proposed 300-foot-wide wooded buffer on the east side of the property.

It removed a 100-foot-wide strip on an adjoining mining property that was supposed to buffer the Buczaks' property once it had been restored.

Its reclamation plan called for a shallow bowl of pasture with a low point 92 feet below sea level and gently sloping sides. The new plan calls for steeper sides with a bottom a dozen feet deeper.

Vulcan made no apparent effort to fill in previously mined areas with clay removed from new mining land, as it said it would in its mining plan.

Hernando mining company doesn't keep promises 11/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 8:15pm]
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