As Craig Pittman pointed out, SWFWMD issued a permit for the 3RT Sand Mine in Levy County. But that ERP says nothing about Rainbow Springs or FDEP’s Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) for the Rainbow Springs springshed. That ERP does not even mention that the mine site is in an aquifer recharge zone.
What is the use of BMAPs, or of Rainbow Springs being an Outstanding Florida Water, if FDEP’s own SWFWMD can issue a permit for a strip mine without mentioning either?
Maybe you’d like to ask about that at FDEP’s meeting about Outstanding Florida Springs Basin Management Plans 2024-01-23. Sure, such meetings are usually public tellings at which the state ignores what citizens say.
But you can use that meeting as a forum to demonstrate opposition to the mine, so you can bring that up at the February 6 Levy County Commission meeting.
Craig Pittman, Florida Phoenix, January 4, 2024,
Florida observatory may be forced to shut down if county OKs sand mine:
Neighbors and astronomers join forces to ask Levy County to nix mining proposal
UF’s Rosemary Hill Observatory in Levy County would be next door to the proposed sand mine.
Pittman set up his story with an aside about Jake from State Farm and good neighbors, and then:
The idea of what constitutes a good neighbor came up last week when I first heard about a dispute that’s been going on in Levy County. It involves a wealthy farmer, a dirty mine, a lot of trucks, and the stars in the heavens.
The farmer in question is Ryan Thomas of Williston. In 2018, he (along with his dad) won a judgment of more than $1.3 million from the owners of a natural gas pipeline who didn’t want to pay nearly that much to cross the Thomases’ 1,100-acre property. A jury decided otherwise.
Back to Craig Pittman’s story:
Thomas raises cattle, watermelons, and peanuts on that land south of Bronson, in an area that’s zoned for residential and agricultural uses only. But now he’s seeking an exception to that zoning so he can open a sand mine.
The property owners nearby do not, as the hipsters say, dig the mine.
Robbie Blake is one of them. She told me she and her neighbors are upset about the potential for dust and noise, the effect on their health, the decline in their property values and, especially, the mine’s addition of 150 daily truck trips onto their winding, hilly, two-lane roads.
“He’s sticking it to all 2,800 of his neighbors,” she told me.
There was a big showdown about this at a Levy County commission meeting last month. Thomas’ neighbors spent nearly five hours telling their commissioners why they should reject his exceptionally bad request.
In the end, the commissioners punted. They listened to the roomful of angry people, then postponed their vote until Feb. 6. Whether you think that was a cynical delaying tactic designed to make the opponents lose interest may depend on how long you’ve lived in Florida.
What sets this dispute apart from others happening all over our fast-changing state is the identity of one of Thomas’ neighbors — maybe the one with the most to lose.
It’s an observatory, one that the University of Florida astronomy department built in what’s been a very dark part of Florida.
At least, until now it has been.
A star for stargazing UF opened its Rosemary Hill Observatory on 80 acres in Levy County in 1967. It’s spent $3 million on the place so far. The facilities include a pair of telescope domes, a dormitory for astronomers to bunk down, and some utility buildings.
The observatory is in an ideal spot for gazing into the heavens for one simple reason:
“Satellite photos show Rosemary Hill near the center of the largest dark area in north Florida,” says the UF website, “making it one of the best sites in the state for astronomical observing.”
Dark Sky, Rosemary Hill Observatory location
Bronson is near the center of this map.
Rosemary Hill Observatory is slightly southeast of Bronson.
The mouth of the Suwannee River is bottom left.
Gainesville with all its light pollution is top right.
Back to Craig Pittman:
Ten years ago, Rosemary Hill ranked fourth in a list of the top 25 college observatories in the nation. In other words, among the places for looking up at the stars, this place IS a star.
“A lot of people are surprised when they go out there for the first time because it’s in a part of Florida that doesn’t have a lot of big cities so it’s really open, and the trees are low, so we have a lot of sky to look at,” an astronomy student told the Independent Florida Alligator for a 2014 story on the ranking.
Elizabeth Lada, via UF The observatory isn’t just for starry-eyed college students, according to Elizabeth Lada, chair of the UF astronomy department. Children from Levy County schools have taken field trips there for years, she said, and it’s also been used by local astronomy clubs.
If the sand mine opens, you can kiss all that stargazing goodbye.
Lada told the county commissioners that the operation of the mine would disrupt the dark sky the observatory needs. Worse, the vibrations from the trucks and the mining would damage their equipment’s alignment. And the airborne sand particles would ruin their lenses and other equipment.
Triana Almeyda, via UF The observatory manager, Triana Almeyda, told the commissioners that the mine “will render the Rosemary Hill observatory unusable.”
Lada pointed out that the university is also concerned about the possible impacts of so much airborne dust “on the health of the students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the observatory.”
Lada noted that the mine would be about 550 feet from the observatory, which is classified as an educational facility. One news account I read pointed out that that’s closer than the county land development code allows without buffers.
And I haven’t even mentioned the impact on the water supply.
Water you doing? During the public hearing, some of Thomas’ neighbors said they were particularly concerned about what the mine would do to their water wells.
The proposed mine, they pointed out, would dig down 76 feet. Their drinking water’s seasonal high is 79 feet, a difference of three feet. If this happened to you, you’d probably say to Thomas, “Water you think you’re doing?”
What makes it even more interesting is where the mine’s runoff would go. According to Suwannee Riverkeeper’s John Quarterman, state maps show that it lies in the springshed of Rainbow Springs. That means any waste that washes off the mining site is likely to wind up in there.
In the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) for Rainbow Springs, December 2015. Which is one of the BMAPs required by the Florida legislature:
The first figure in that BMAP shows the west border of the Rainbow Springs BMAP area extending from Bronson southwest down CR 337 towards Dunnellon.
Back to Craig Pittman, after his digression on the name of Rainbow Springs:
Yet so far, Quarterman said, the two water management agencies that should be watching out for that kind of pollution, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Suwannee River Water Management District, have raised no objections or concerns.
In fact, the agency commonly known as “Swiftmud” gave Thomas a permit in late 2022 for what it called a “borrow pit” to excavate sand.
Yes, Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) issued Environmental Resource Permit (ERP) No. 43046299.000 to Ryan Thomas for the 3RT Sand Mine on April 19, 2023.
However, nowhere in the documentation for that permit is there any mention of the Rainbow Springs springshed. Instead, the applicant says there is no special basin, on page 11 of Section H: Supplemental Information for Stormwater Management Systems for Mines:
Special Basin Information
a. Is the proposed project located within a Special Basin identified in the applicable Applicant’s Handbook, Volume II?
[ ] yes [x] no [ ] don’t know
b. If yes, please demonstrate that the project will meet the applicable Special Basin criteria.
So the Rainbow Springs BMAP doesn’t identify a Special Basin?
Apparently not, since SWFWMD told the applicant that this question does not apply (I added the emphasis)
j. If the proposed project site is located within a mile of a karst-sensitive area, a springshed, other karst features, or a public supply wellfield, submit a geotechnical assessment report, which includes a location map of these features. Provide information about site grading or other stormwater management practices designed to direct runoff from any areas that are potential sources of pollutants into stormwater treatment areas that are designed, constructed, operated, and maintained in compliance with the requirements of the applicable Applicant’s Handbook, Volume II, prior to any discharge to the mine excavation. N/A
The proposed borrow area will include a 100-foot setback around the 400-acre site to maintain historic drainage patterns. There is no impervious area proposed. Therefore, water quantity attenuation and water quality treatment are not required.
Yet the Rainbow Springs BMAP includes this figure that shows the mine site in a high to medium aquifer recharge zone.
For comparison, the yellow outlines towards the upper left of this map are the Levy County parcels of the mine and its access routes. This maps’s area approximates that of the previous map. You can clearly see the mine site is in the Rainbow Springs springshed and in an aquifer recharge zone.
Back to Craig Pittman:
“I don’t know what’s going on with that,” Quarterman said. “I think the mine has enough problems and enough objections from the neighbors that the owner shouldn’t get his exception.”
I contacted another environmental group, Rainbow River Conservation, to ask what they thought. Turns out I was the first to call their attention to it. Their president, Jerry Rogers, called for a lot more scrutiny of the project.
“The proposed mine would be situated within the recharge zone for Rainbow Springs and could have significant environmental impacts on the water quality of the springshed,” he said.
Hill versus mountain The first person who told Blake about the mine in her neighborhood was a reporter named Terry Witt. He’s been covering Levy County off and on since around the time it was founded in 1845. (The county was named, by the way, after a particularly colorful U.S. senator named David Levy Yulee.)
Most recently, Witt was covering it for an online publication called Spotlight on Levy County Government. He found the sand mine proposal endlessly fascinating for the story it told about who really runs things.
The darkness in Levy County is in more than just the sky above the observatory. It’s in the one-hand-washes-the-other politicking as well, thanks to an interlocking set of family relationships that date back generations.
Wilbur Dean via Levy County For instance, a county map that was sent to Thomas’ neighbors shows that Levy County’s coordinator (like a county manager), Wilbur Dean, owns land that would be part of the mine site. Witt told me he believes Dean — no fan of environmental protection rules — has been pulling the strings for Thomas’ project all along. Dean told me, via email, that that was “incorrect information,” but refused to answer any other questions.
“I’ve never seen Levy County politics more toxic than the politics around this sand mine,” Witt told me.
But then, Witt said, the website’s owner told him she didn’t want to see him write any more stories on the sand mine. They parted ways.
Now he writes for the “No Sand Mine” Facebook page. Meanwhile the most recent Spotlight story — written by Witt’s ex-boss — is far more supportive of the mine and opposed to its complaining neighbors. She accused them of fostering mob rule and complained about the commissioners’ delay of the decision.
One of the things Witt pointed out to me when we talked is that Levy County already has 13 sand mines supplying builders and developers.
“Why do we need another one?” he asked.
He said when someone brought up the impact the mine would have on all the threatened gopher tortoises on the property, he heard one county official joke that they’d just load them on a truck and haul them elsewhere. Although maybe it wasn’t a joke.
I asked Witt about something I’d heard Thomas’ engineer tell county commissioners. He’d said his client primarily wants to mine his farmland to shave down a hill so it will be easier to farm.
“That’s the big lie that’s being told,” Witt said. “Whoever heard of anything so ridiculous? I nearly busted out laughing when I heard that.”
He pointed out two problems with the engineer’s claim. One is that the Thomas family has been farming that property for generations, with no problems about any hills.
The other is that Thomas said he wants to keep his mine going for 100 years, which is far longer than it would take to shave down a hill.
Instead of tearing down a hill, Thomas wants to build a mountain — one made of dollar bills.
“This is all about money,” Witt said.
Not like a good neighbor This is what I mean about dark politics. At the county commission meeting last month, all five of the county commissioners acknowledged having closed-door discussions with either Thomas or his engineer or both prior to taking public testimony.
One of them, Commission Chairwoman Desiree Mills, acknowledged that Thomas had given her $1,500 in campaign contributions, but swore that wouldn’t affect her decision. But then she said that she was “sympathetic with what Mr. Thomas is trying to accomplish.”
I thought that was, as Robert Duvall put it in “True Grit,” bold talk, so I contacted Mills with further questions.
But the commissioner told me she had no comment.
I also tried to talk to Thomas and his engineer, Douglas VanDeursen at DNM Engineering Associates in Ocala. VanDeursen didn’t call me back. Thomas responded to my emails by saying he had no time to talk to me before my deadline.
“I will be glad to speak with you further at a later date,” he said, postponing our discussion the way the commissioners postponed their vote.
Witt told me that Thomas avoids any situation where someone might take his picture or ask him a question. At the public hearing, “he’d stand in the back of the room kind of tucked in behind other people … . He does all his politicking behind the scenes.”
At the start of the county commission public hearing, VanDeursen played a video for the commissioners that extolled Thomas’ best qualities. He’s won plaudits for being environmentally sensitive with his farming practices, the video said.
“The Thomas family plans to keep this property in agricultural production for generations to come,” the video boasted, with no mention of mining.
I bet the UF astronomers and the other folks living around his property wish they could summon up Jake from State Farm to POOF! Thomas back to those days — back to when he was their good neighbor.
Alas, that sort of happy ending only happens on TV.
End of Craig Pittman’s story.
But if you oppose this mine and you want a happy ending, you can speak up January 23 at FDEP’s Outstanding Florida Springs Basin Management Plans meeting and at the February 6 Levy County Commission meeting. Call or write them in advance. Contact your state legislative delegation. Contact your neighbors and ask them to do the same.
-jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®