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Held hostage

Published Sep. 26, 2005

A deal that would allow the state to buy a limerock mine at the source of the Ichetucknee River in exchange for letting a company build a cement plant needlessly puts Florida's environment at the mercy of a polluter.

The state of Florida is being held hostage _ by a big-time polluter.

Last June, the state denied a permit for a cement plant on the beautiful Ichetucknee River. The Bush administration cited the abysmal environmental record of Anderson Columbia, the company that wanted to build the plant, in refusing to allow such a thing.

At the time the decision played well: a rebuke to one of Florida's dirtiest companies delivered despite the big money Anderson contributed to the campaigns of Gov. Jeb Bush and other Republicans.

Now, six months later, the Bush administration has reversed itself. In a fractious session, the Cabinet voted 4-3 to buy a limerock mine owned by Anderson Columbia that sits on top of the Ichetucknee's underground source (the price has not yet been determined). In exchange for letting the state buy the mine, Anderson Columbia will get its cement plant. Comptroller Bob Milligan and Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson voted against the plan, along with Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who wondered aloud about the state being railroaded by Anderson Columbia.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs touts this deal as a great victory for the ecology of Florida on the grounds that in return for getting what it wanted, Anderson Columbia and its subsidiaries will admit their years of environmental atrocities and work to resolve them. The company will also put $1-million into a waterways protection plan, clean up the damage done to the Blackwater River and control emissions.

Certainly, it's a fine thing that this serial polluter will have to straighten up and fly right. But why do we have to jeopardize the exquisite, unspoiled Ichetucknee to make Anderson Columbia comply with Florida's environmental regulations? Though Suwannee American, a division of Anderson Columbia, claims it will install state-of-the-art filters to deal with emissions from the coal and tires it plans to burn at the cement kiln, other issues _ mercury and nitrates that might end up in the water, industrial noise, limerock dust and heavy truck traffic _ have not been addressed. No matter how anyone from DEP spins it, a cement plant is not a clean business.

A limerock mine isn't clean, either. Anderson Columbia uses dynamite at its Ichetucknee headwaters site, and there is a real danger that, at some time, the aquifer could be penetrated and compromised. The pristine Ichetucknee would be pristine no more.

But here's the rub: We may get rid of one potential limerock mine disaster only to be faced with another. The cement plant site has its own limerock mine, this one located where it could pollute the Santa Fe River. So while we "save" one river, we run the risk of ruining another. This is hardly sound environmental policy.

In addition to wanting to preserve the Ichetucknee and the Santa Fe (both designated Outstanding Florida Waterways), there are serious economic reasons to take a dim view of the cement plant. When it was proposed last year, DEP's own head of the Division of Parks and Recreation came out against it, worrying not only about long-term environmental damage but also the hit ecotourism would take if the public perceives the place as polluted. Over 200,000 people a year visit Ichetucknee Springs.

The state presents this as some kind of Solomonic dilemma: We must choose between the cement kiln or the mine. But, with an ounce or two of political courage, we need not suffer either one. The state could condemn the Ichetucknee limerock mine. It would not be easy, and it would not be cheap. But surely saving one of our most fragile, special ecosystems is worth it.