Gulf Coast Aggregates is seeking permission to extend their mining operations into Tate’s Hell State Forest.
At the county meeting on Tuesday morning, St. George Island realtor Sandy Mitchem asked commissioners for a letter to the state supporting a plan to extend fossil oyster shell mining operations onto state land.
Mitchem said the existing mine located on 165 acres of private land is about to play out. “Not only would it possibly help our bay, it would create a lot of jobs for all of us,” she said.
“If it will create jobs, I am for it,” she said.
She said the mining operation started with two employees and has now grown to a staff of 18 or 19, eight of whom are Franklin County residents.
Mitchem said the private land where the mine is located is surrounded by state land.
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders asked if the land in question was part of the Walnut Creek watershed and how many acres the mining company was seeking to use.
“I don’t know even if they’ll give us the extended property,” Mitchem said. “The first part of the process is a few letters and then we could request 5,000 or 10,000 acres.”
Sanders said that if the current strip mine were extended it would be adjacent to privately owned land including her home. “Every time they dynamite up there, it puts tannic acid in my water,” Sanders said.
Count Planner Alan Pierce said the land Gulf Aggregates wants to use is part of Tate’s Hell State Forest.
“It was purchased for environmental preservation,” he said. “You would have to put it back the way it was as a wetland and not a lake.”
He said state requirements for restoration of wetlands after use are so stringent he didn’t believe Gulf Aggregates could repair the land after it was mined.
Mitchem said she envisioned a lake with walking paths around it. “If we can’t get the expansion, then the job opportunity for Franklin County won’t be there,” she said.
“You are talking about taking wild lands and turning it into a manicured park-like area and I can just tell you there’s no way,” Pierce said.
He said he had received a list of what would need to be done during the project from Gulf Coast Aggregates.
“You would be removing 20 feet of overburden, getting the shells out and the state would want you to put it back the way it was. I don’t see how that’s even possible,” Pierce said.
“It’s just a request of extended land so we can dig down,” Mitchem said.
“Gulf Aggregates needs to meet certain standards before any letter of support is written,” Sanders said. “I would like to see us table this until she can come back with the guarantees and have it worked out with the state before she comes to us. Once (the state) sees the county commission’s signature they will move ahead with this. ”
Commissioner Pinki Jackel said she and Mitchem had discussed the matter prior to the meeting. “I didn’t realize you were going to be here today,” said Jackel. “I asked you for more information. I asked some of the same questions that Commissioner Sanders just voiced.
“I am in favor of jobs. I cannot vote to give a carte blanche letter of endorsement. This is the same thing we tell everyone comes before us. What are the conditions of this letter? Bring us your letter of what you’re expecting us to endorse. Let us have the county attorney review it,” she said. “We are in a very environmentally sensitive area. We want to do the best thing and strike the balance between environment and man. I want to know exactly what I’m sponsoring.”
Sanders said that there is an area already approved for mining across County Road 67. “If I were you, I would try to find any other land to deal with rather than go to the state,” said Pierce. “The county tried to get just 100 acres for a prison, which was a public benefit on public land and we couldn’t even get 100 acres.”
Mitchem said the shell runs in veins and Gulf Aggregate believes there are veins under the land adjacent to the existing mine.
Jackel asked if the use of public land would have to go before the legislature for final approval. “Absolutely, this is just the first step,” said Mitchem.
“I want to support you but I have got to have the information,. Ask the state to come with you and appear before the board, I have got to know what I am voting to get the county into,” said Jackel.
“It boils down to this. It’s what you call strip mining. You can’t put back what you take out,” Sanders said.
“As an example we’re talking about a lake and walking areas. A park. A recreational facility. It wouldn’t be put back they way it is now because there’s no way,” Mitchem said.