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Radon cited as dirt mine concern

Radon cited as dirt mine concern

Attorney calls county mining policies 'ironic'

After spending $9 million in recent years trying to stop phosphate mining in other counties, Charlotte County is now poised to approve several dozen dirt mines within its own boundaries.

Ironically, at least one of those mines has now recently been found to contain phosphate ore, and that has triggered a concern over groundwater with radioactive elements.

That's because radon and its decay products are often found along with phosphate ores, according to a recent exchange of e-mails between a county staffer and a state mine-permitting official.

The e-mails also cite a potential for extra deep pits at one mine to wind up as lakes with depleted oxygen levels at deeper depths. That water-quality problem has also been encountered in phosphate mine reclamation projects that include lakes.

That's "ironic," said Brad Kelsky, an attorney for the Washington Loop Homeowners Preservation Association.

The association was organized by residents of Washington Loop who are opposed to dirt mines in their area.

Kelsky pointed out that at a public hearing today, a county hearing officer may grant requests from a half dozen of the proposed dirt mines to be "vested" under the regulations of the county's previous mining ordinance. That ordinance was replaced with a stricter version in August.

The former version failed to require hydrological monitoring or traffic impact studies, Kelsky pointed out.

"Knowing that the county has spent $9 million fighting the phosphate mining issue, it seems ironic that when (mining) comes up here, these concerns are not addressed," he said.

Kelsky argued the county has the authority to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents, and that should extend to dirt mining.

The mining proposals also include four set to request preliminary and final approvals at a hearing Oct. 5. Combined, those 10 mines call for 108 million cubic yards to be excavated from a total of 8,335 acres.

Another 20 proposed mines have yet to be set for hearings.

In a Sept. 18 e-mail, Garry Weedo, county acting land development director, asked Alan Whitehouse, a DEP mine permitting specialist, for advice on two mining issues. They included low dissolved oxygen levels that may be found in the deep pits planned at the South Loop mine, located on Washington Loop Road; and the concern that radon may be found at the Williams Pit Excavation site, located north of Bermont Road and east of State Road 31.

In response, Whitehouse advised the county that radon, a gas that disperses in open air, may not be a significant concern. However, the presence of radon is an indicator "of other, more troublesome radionuclides that could be mobilized in the groundwater, as a result of the mining," Whitehouse wrote.

Mining can expose buried contaminants to oxygen, which causes oxidation, and that can allow them to be mobilized by water, explained John Coates, DEP mine bureau director.

Whitehouse said the Williams mine "will need further hydrogeological investigation, and possibly some testing with monitoring wells."

Jim Dossett, acting county community development director, said the DEP staffer's advice sounded "fairly strong to me." Dossett said he will make sure the county gets the applicant to address the concerns.

Dossett pointed out that the county staff twice in the past year asked the commission to place a moratorium on mining. Instead, the commission directed the staff to conduct panel discussions with "stakeholders" for 60 days before drafting a revised ordinance.

Meanwhile, dozens of mine developers raced to file applications before the new ordinance could get adopted.

Several commissioners have since said even the revised ordinance didn't go far enough. They've called for the county to adopt a special zoning district for mining.

"This is exactly the reason we asked twice for the board to declare a moratorium (on mining permits)," Dossett said.

Weedo, in his e-mail to the DEP, also asked for advice on the South Loop pit, which proposes a 55-foot-deep pit next to Myrtle Creek. A concern had been raised that such pits can turn into lakes with depleted oxygen levels, Weedo indicated.

However, the Legislature in recent years eased water-quality standards for the oxygen levels in such deep lakes, Coates said.

The DEP typically reviews only excavation proposals that include rock-processing facilities, Coates said. For typical "borrow pits," impacts are reviewed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, he said.

The district has a hydrologist, an engineer and an ecologist review each application, said Ross Morton, an area water district permitting supervisor.

If contamination or hydrology impacts are discovered after mining is approved, mining operations can be modified or stopped to address the problems, he said.

If a radiological concern was revealed by an applicant, the district would "coordinate closely with the DEP" about how to evaluate such a concern, he said.

"Ultimately, if it meets our rules, we have to issue a permit," Morton said.

You can e-mail Greg Martin at gmartin@sun-herald.com.


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