Along the rolling back roads of rural Hernando County, nature's serenity is disturbed occasionally by shrill cries of wild birds, raucous squawks of tree toads _ and sharp cracks of dynamite. Even as egrets and heron troll the green banks of fish-filled ponds, nearby mining companies blast for limestone, the key ingredient in cement and road beds.
Cement kilns hum around the clock, and fleets of limerock and cement trucks roar down country roads, hauling the resources that become the foundation for the continued growth of Tampa, St. Petersburg and dozens of other cities throughout western Florida.
For decades, Hernando's residents _ at least the human ones _ weren't bothered by the noise and the traffic. After all, the county has long been the primary source for limestone and cement in this region, making mining one its biggest employers and most important industries.
But lately, a new sound has been coming from Hernando: the voices of retirees streaming into the county in search of a quiet place in the sun.
Theirs are voices of dissent.
They have fresh memories of the industrial scars in the manufacturing states they left for the serenity of central Florida, and the last things they want to cope with in their new lives are the noise, dust and disruption associated with limestone mining.
"I think probably more and more people today are becoming unconnected from the mines," said Herb Shapiro, a mining opponent from New Jersey who moved to Hernando 10 years ago. "The people who choose to live here today have the right to expect more government control over such a destructive industry."
The new resistance to mining has indeed resulted in an array of federal, state and local mining regulations.
Coupled with the nationwide construction slump and recession, the increased regulations and public resistance add up to one thing:
The mining industry is in the pits.
"Business is terrible," said John Baker, president of Florida Rock Industries Inc., one of five mining companies with operations in Hernando County.
"It's harder to get reserves, you've got infinitely more regulations, and you've got the slump and all the other problems every business faces these days," he said. "And because we're in the business of digging . . . we've got a lot more regulations and a lot more scrutiny than other businesses."
Cement market softens
The most immediate problem for the limestone industry is the construction slump.
Residential and commercial building projects, the biggest users of cement, are at their lowest levels in a decade in Florida and the nation.
At the same time, road construction projects, the biggest users of soft limestone, have been few and far between in recent years as the state Department of Transportation (DOT) cut spending to bare-bones levels.
As a result, the market for limestone and cement _ produced mainly in Hernando County on Florida's West Coast, and in Dade and Broward counties on the East Coast _ has dried up.
Production of crushed stone in Florida, the vast majority of which is limestone, fell nearly 12 percent last year, to levels not seen in four years.
And employment at limestone and cement companies statewide decreased by 18 percent last year from a decade earlier, according to Florida Chamber of Commerce estimates.
"The DOT projects will be back," said Gene Cowger, director of the Florida Limerock and Aggregate Institute, an industry trade group. "But who knows when, if ever, the commercial projects will be back."
Until they return, limestone mining companies are doing whatever they can to cut costs and stay afloat:
Florida Crushed Stone Co. has laid off more than 100 employees at its Brooksville cement and mining operation. Employment stands at about 350 people.
Jacksonville-based Florida Rock Industries, Baker's company, has laid off about 700 people at mines and concrete block plants throughout Florida, Maryland and Virginia, although none of the 100 employees at its Brooksville limestone mine _ its biggest quarry _ has lost his job.
Florida Mining and Materials has not laid off any of the 140 employees at its Brooksville cement plant, but it has taken some drastic cost-cutting and diversification steps.
One of Florida Mining's two multimillion-dollar cement kilns has been shut down for most of this year, and the company has virtually eliminated employee overtime and outside contractor work.
Last month Florida Mining disclosed it had put its 125-employee rock mining operations up for sale to raise cash. And in one of its most controversial moves, the company is trying to persuade county and state regulators to let it burn hazardous waste in a cement kiln to cut coal-fuel expenses and increase revenues.
Spring Hill's Oman Construction Co. has cut about a dozen workers from its Aripeka Limerock Mine in southwest Hernando County. Earlier this year, Oman eliminated another 450 jobs when it bailed out of its road building business.
Lake Wales-based E.R. Jahna Industries Inc. has seen its limerock and sand sales shrink 25 percent to 30 percent statewide, prompting layoffs at its Mills Mine in eastern Hernando County and its other quarries throughout the state.
"It's sad, because you spend so many years training a person, and you get a good employee who you have to let go," said Pete Gall, vice president of sales for E.R. Jahna. "It's the toughest thing we have to do."
More visible, vulnerable
Despite its severity, the construction slump is perhaps the least of the worries on many mining executives' minds. The slump is temporary.
Other threats to the mining business _ such as decreased public acceptance of the industry and increased regulation _ may not be.
"This industry for a long time has sort of been out of sight, out of mind," said Bud Coleman, vice president and general manager of Florida Mining and Materials, which was founded in Brooksville in 1953 as the E.S. McKinsey Co. and is now owned by Houston-based cement giant Southdown Inc.
"But as the population grows and spreads, people become more and more aware of mining," he said.
That awareness, for the most part, has translated into scrutiny.
Any public hearing on any mining issue in Hernando these days draws a good number of mining opponents. But perhaps no public meeting was more telling than one two months ago, where two Hernando mining companies were trying to get the county's approval to expand their quarries by a total of 300 acres.
Along with two film presentations and a study by a University of Florida professor outlining the benefits of mining, the companies presented testimony by none other than Tom Pelham _ the former state Department of Community Affairs secretary who aggressively fought for more stringent growth management laws under then-Gov. Bob Martinez.
Nonetheless, Hernando County commissioners rejected the mines' expansion plans, saying they were not consistent with the county's Comprehensive Growth Plan and that they would disrupt nearby residents.
"It certainly is getting tougher," to expand, said Tom Mountain, environmental manager and spokesman for Florida Crushed Stone, one of the two companies seeking to expand. "And as the competition for the use of the available land increases . . . it's going to continue to get tougher."
Two of the people who spoke against the companies at the April public hearing were Al and Sally Sevier, perhaps the county's most outspoken mining critics.
"When we moved here, all we heard was that without mining, we'd all starve to death," Al Sevier, a former Pinellas County law enforcement officer who moved to a house near Florida Rock Industries' quarry in Brooksville after he retired in 1976.
"But at this point, (mining) is way beyond its lifespan," Sevier said in a recent interview. "It has already destroyed thousands of acres of beautiful hills, just for the limerock underneath it.
"There's a point where you have to say enough is enough."
To a degree, state and local regulators in recent years have agreed with the Seviers.
In the past decade, regulations surrounding the mining industry have gone from nearly non-existent to a point where some mining companies have designated employees whose primary jobs are to keep track of the various permits, plans and data that must be submitted routinely to regulators.
There are county zoning and land use regulations and water management district regulations for surface and groundwater usage. There are state regulations for land reclamation and federal regulations for resource extraction and mining safety.
"What we'll have to do is keep hiring qualified people to help us comply with these new regulations, and we'll live with them," said Baker of Florida Rock Industries.
"But it's giving us a lot more headaches."
Not just "a big hole'
Will increased regulations and populations eventually drive limestone mining out of Hernando County?
Probably not, mining officials and industry observers say.
But clearly it will continue to change the way mining companies do business.
"As the county changes and the population base changes and the profile of the county commission changes, we'll have to continue to do a lot more educating of people as to exactly what we do," said Coleman of Florida Mining and Materials.
Coleman, who helped found the Hernando County Mining Association four years ago to bolster the industry's image, launched a comprehensive public relations program at his own company in 1989.
Among other things, the campaign has resulted in hundreds of public tours of Florida Mining's cement plant, which just a few years ago would have been off limits to almost anyone who didn't work there.
While better public relations may help the mining industry's battered image somewhat, the success or failure of some land reclamation projects and other developments may provide a much bigger boost.
"The public perception of a mine is that it is just a big hole in the ground," said Bruce Remick of the National Stone Association in Washington, D.C. "But there are quarries throughout the nation that have been turned into oriental gardens and other recreational parks, and into swimming facilities . . . and residential communities."
In Hernando, one mine reclamation project that likely will be a proving ground is Oman Construction's Aripeka Limerock Mine.
There, developers plan to turn the quarry into a giant lake and the centerpiece of a residential community with more than 3,000 houses and Hernando County's first shopping mall.
Another project that may catch the eyes of mining proponents and activists alike is a $20-million, 700-acre golf course resort planned by a Japanese development company near the Hernando-Citrus county line, just a few miles from Florida Mining and Materials' rock mine and cement plant.
The resort, called World Woods Golf Resort, is expected to include a luxury hotel and hundreds of short-term rental units.
"There's no reason why these facilities (mines) cannot exist compatibly with developments like that, as well as other commercial, industrial and certain types of residential projects," Coleman said.
"If they (the Japanese company) didn't think so too, they would have never committed all they're planning to commit right across the street from us."
Clinkers, grinders and 2,800-degree kilns: Turning limestone into cement:
1 After dynamiting to loosen the limestone (shown here at Florida Mining & Materials Corp. in Brooksville), workers evacavate the rock.
2 The limestone _ or "soft rock," as it is known in the mining industry when used for cement production _ is loaded into a giant crusher, which breaks the meneral down into smaller pieces.
3 The limestone boulders, which enter the crusher sometimes weighing several pounds and spanning a foot or more, emerge as hand-size pieces. These are "pre-blended" in giant silos and storage buildings with fly ash (residue from coal-fired power plants) and sand.
4 The limestone, fly ash and sand mixture is moved into a grinding mill _ a giant, spiked tube filled with 100 tons of alloy steel balls. The grinding mill pulverizes and blends the mixture into a fine powder called kiln feed.
5 The kiln feed is moved into blending silos and then moved through a preheating silo and heated to as much as 1,500 degrees before being fed into cement kilns at the bottom of the preheating silos.
6 In the 230-foot cement kilns, which are made of steel and refractory brick, the feed is heated to 2,800 degrees by coal-fired furnaces. From the kilns come marble-sized "clinkers" of calcium silicate.
7 The red-hot "clinkers" are cooled as they're taken by a deep-bucket elevator to nearby storage silos. After cooling further in the sotarge silos, the "clinkers" are run through a "finishing" mill, where they are again ground into powder.
8 The powder, now called cement, is taken by trucks to ready-mix and block plants, where it is turned into concrete by adding water and aggregate limestone, or "hard rock."