ATLANTA (CN) – The 11th Circuit lifted a ban on limestone mining in the Lake Belt wetlands of Miami-Dade County, explaining that the federal judge who imposed the ban had improperly focused on substantive issues rather than determining whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers complied with the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The district court seems to have predetermined the answer to the ultimate issues, concluding that the Corps should not permit mining in the Lake Belt, and analyzed the permitting process with that answer in mind,” Judge Williams wrote.
U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler had invalidated mining permits in the Lake Belt’s northwest wellfield after environmentalists argued that the corps failed to follow proper permitting procedures.
The Lake Belt area covers about 60,000 acres west of Miami and east of the Everglades National Park and has been a site for limestone mining since the 1950s. The area is named for the “lakes” that form when groundwater fills in the mining pits.
The corps originally considered granting 50-year permits to mine 15,800 acres of the Lake Belt, but reduced the permits to 10 years and 5,000 acres in response to overwhelming criticism about the possible contamination of drinking water supplies and the alleged detrimental effect on protected wood stork.
The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Parks and Conservation Association claimed the corps failed to prepare an adequate environmental impact study for the 10-year permits. The district court, in deciding that the corps failed to follow the NEPA, mentioned that the act requires the corps to deny the permits.
“NEPA can never provide grounds for a court to direct a federal agency’s substantive decision,” the appeals court wrote.
In a partial dissent, Judge Kravitch said the NEPA errors “are not fatal to its judgment.” Kravitch agreed with the district court’s finding that the corps violated the Clean Water Act in the permitting process.
The majority opinion ended a nearly 10-month shut down of mining operations.