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Image plays role in mining dispute

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The white pickup truck rolled along a bumpy limestone road and kicked up billowing clouds of the stuff.

Coming the other way was an 85-ton Caterpillar truck, huge and yellow, like an escapee from a monster truck show in Tampa Stadium. The cloud it left behind dwarfed that of the pickup.

Charlie Price, plant manager of Vulcan ICA and president of the Hernando County Mining Association, parked the pickup at a spot he likes to show off: a place of scrubby brush and grass, some trees and many rocks, scattered against a backdrop of sheer limestone and clay.

Places like this make wonderful wildlife habitat, he said.

"And the terrain is unlike anything you'd usually find in Florida," Price said. "Personally, I think that's kind of neat."

He would like to convince Hernando County residents that the common perception of mines as rapers and pillagers of the land is unfounded.

That mining is but a temporary use, a brief disturbance in the cosmic scheme.

Sure, the land is reshaped and original habitats obliterated, but new ones evolve, he said.

You want to know what's happening at Florida Crushed Stone? At Florida Rock Industries? Just pick up the phone and call. These days, mining officials are excited about taking visitors on "windshield tours."

They will downplay the alarmist claims of mining opponents, who say the industry threatens the water supply and leaves land barren and rattles their homes.

They'll pitch the nature-friendliness of the mines.

Ten years ago, that wasn't the case. Mining officials as a group didn't seem to think the public needed to know. They had the power and the influence to shut out the public.

Now, public opinion has turned largely against the mines.

"It's difficult to try and overcome these things, to keep up the morale of the people who work here," Price said. "Almost daily, I have to have a conversation with somebody whose children have come home from school and heard all these things and said, "Daddy, are you really doing all those bad things that they say you're doing?' These folks come ask me, "Charlie, really, are we that bad?' And I tell them, "Hold your heads up, boys. You're in a basic industry, doing a great service to the community. What you're doing is good.' "

The proposed mining and noise ordinance that county commissioners will begin considering this week signals the potential death knell of the mining industry in Hernando County, Price said.

"Sally Sevier has accomplished her objective. Her objective has always been to shut down the mines," he said.

Sevier, a longtime opponent who lives about a half-mile from a Florida Rock mining pit, leads the Citizens Alliance for a Responsible Mining Ordinance.

She disagrees with Price's belief that the new ordinance, which she admits is a step in the right direction, is a victory for her side.

"An awful lot of this ordinance has been taken from (the one drafted) in 1978, which everyone recognizes is totally unenforceable," Sevier said. "We've made a little headway, though."

At Tuesday's public hearing at the National Guard Armory, she said, she will be accompanied by activists from Citrus County. They are not reinforcements, she said. They only provide fresh, sane perspectives.

"Those of us who are regulars in Hernando County, the commission gets kind of tired of hearing our voices. It's kind of like your mother's voice, when you start to block it out after a while," she said. "I thought a fresh voice and another viewpoint would do some good. They'll do it from a very knowledgeable standpoint. It's not an emotional issue, once you present the facts with legitimate background material."

Bill Walton, safety director for Florida Rock, said Sevier won't acknowledge victory because it would cost her political clout she has acquired during the past 12 years.

"Well, you see, CARMO can't say anything good because that weakens their negotiating position," Walton said. "If they say, "We're looking good, we're winning,' to the press, then the commissioners would say, "Well, we've got them satisfied.' Sally's whole approach, her motivation, is political control. She's trying to box the commission in. Absolutely. Without question."

Walton said Sevier has used local newspapers, primarily the St. Petersburg Times, to "eat the lunch" of Hernando County's mining industry.

"She's been generating these innuendos in the press to create awareness. It's a conscious effort, a clear and intentional effort, to manipulate the press," Walton said. "The St. Pete Times has beat us to death. And Sally is perceived by the politicians as a power broker. She gets that power from the press."

Walton said it's been difficult to discredit Sevier because of her image.

"Folks know Sally is this nice, gray-haired old lady who has nothing to lose in this process, so why would she lie?" Walton said. "Why would she distort the truth?"

He criticized the Times for publicizing Sevier's views _ although a few years ago, before the now much touted openness on the part of the mines, some mining officials refused to respond to comments Sevier made to reporters.

Again, this was during a time when the old ordinance was in effect and the mines had no use for public relations. Back then, they didn't think it mattered. Now, times have changed.

"I think I'm frustrated that Sally can say Bill Walton knows they're doing terrible things out there, they're hurting the environment and he's trying to conceal it," Walton said. "That casts a shadow on my integrity. I'm frustrated the press can be used that way. I love this area. I'm not going to do anything or allow anything to occur that puts me, my country or my water at risk."

Lawyer Doug Bevins has fought the legal battle against the mining industry for the past two years. It started as a paying job. When the money ran out last year, he already had been appointed to a mining ordinance committee. He decided to stay on, for free.

"I didn't feel like I could step out of it without having fulfilled an implied promise. I wanted to finish what I started, basically," Bevins said. "I feel very wearied by this process. I've been worn thin. The pure length of this thing has been amazing. This thing has gone on maybe six or seven times longer than any reasonable process.

"And at this point, I'm frustrated that the whole process could blow up, even now."

He said the mines may put on airs of openness, but that underneath remains the opinion that they should be left alone to do what they want.

"At the beginning and still now, they feel like they have the right to mine and disregard everyone else. That just doesn't work anymore," Bevins said. "Those people need to have an interest in what the county looks like when they hand it over to their children and grandchildren."

What if commissioners don't approve an ordinance as stringent as Sevier would like, with 1,500-foot setbacks and maximum five-year permits for the mines?

Or what if they side with the mines, eliminate setbacks and burdensome review and permitting processes?

The fight goes on, Sevier said.

"We can only hope for the best and count on the reasonableness of the commission," she said.