County commissioners have put off deciding whether to bless a businessman’s plan to mine fossilized shell in Tate’s Hell State Forest until after state officials complete a rewrite of the 10-year management plan governing the forest.
By a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Noah Lockley opposed, commissioners onb Aug. 20 approved a motion by Commissioner Smokey Parrish to wait until the governor and cabinet have acted on a soon-to-completed rewrite of the 2007 management plan.
The commissioners’ decision means that it will likely be December at the earliest when they decide whether to write a letter of support for a proposed mining project by Crawfordville businessman Chris Langston.
Before Langston and his consultant, Joe Shields, a former staffer in the aquaculture division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, presented to commissioners the proposal from Coastal Environmental Management to mine about 600 acres on the northeast corner of the county, on the eastern edge of the forest, it was met with public opposition.
Deborah Clifford, a property owner on Pine Log Creek, not far from the mine site, and a certified green guide who leads kayak trips into Tate’s Hell swamp, disputed the company’s claim it would have “zero negative impacts on any adjacent wetlands or tributaries.”
She said Langwood Industries, a company run by Langston and his brother Mike and father Gene that mined a fossilized shell quarry not far from the proposed site, had received complaints of water well contamination, and was responsible for noise and ground vibration that had an adverse effect on wildlife.
Serge Latour, a partner in La Lutra Ecotours, stressed the environmental significance of the Pine Log Creek watershed. “This is an open strip mine proposed to be at point where the wetlands of the Apalachicola National Forest are draining into Pine log Creek,” he said. “This area floods all the time and none of this equipment works when it’s flooded. This is one of the few pristine watersheds in this county. A new location should be considered.”
Chester Butler, who described himself as “a capitalist first, naturalist second,” took issue with the claim made in Langston’s proposal that a Jan. 2019 report by Melanie Parker, a researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, confirmed “fossilized shell is a superior cultch material (and that it) had the best results (for restoring depleted oyster reefs).”
Butler said he talked with Parker and that “she was somewhat stunned because the conclusion she came to is not being presented to you today. She said ‘My report did not address that. All sites used were fossilized shell, there was no comparison of materials.’
“If there is no comparison, how can one be best or superior?” Butler asked.
Lesley Cox, a certified green guide offered a letter of opposition for commissioners to consider. She noted that while Apalachicola had submitted a letter of support to Langston for his Triumph application to fund using fossilized shell to create a proposed artificial reef, the city had not yet voted to back CEM’s proposal to ship the material out of Battery Park,.
“So are we going to dig a big hole in the forest and mine rock, so we can harvest predators out of the bay?” she asked. “There will be impact to the roads in Tate’s Hell.”
In his proposal, which was backed by letters of support from Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson, Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper and oyster aquaculture leaseholder Jeff Tilley, Langston stressed that fossilized shell has outperformed lime rock and granite in replenishing oyster reefs.
He said there’s been “a lot of emphasis, a lot of hope” in improving the condition of Apalachicola Bay for oyster harvesting, including three-quarters of $1 billion spent on the so-called "water wars.”
“Our predators, conchs and drills, they have not been that big a factor in the last couple years,” Langston said. “Our oyster densities have continued to decline.
“One thing we got is job opportunities and it’s stagnant. Oyster harvesting has moved to Cedar Key because of low densities,” he said. “Our oyster industry is seeing, quite frankly, history in the making. You’re seeing a way of life at an extinction-level event. It’s obvious.”
He disputed the contention Langwood had received complaints. “It is impossible for a well five miles away to be affected by that process,” Langston said.
He said the mined material “can be provided for many different processes,” and stressed the company’s primary objective is to restore Florida’s oyster habitat. He said the mine itself would provide “20-plus jobs, boots on the ground (and) put 300-plus watermen back to work.”
Langston said he was not asking the county to accept liability or make any capital investment, only to draft a letter of support that would assist in his ultimate goal of securing approval from the state to mine on the site.
“We can be one of the largest private employees in the area and at the same time restore our bay,” he said.
Langston said he continues to work on a deal with Apalachicola to get Battery Park rezoned for shipping purposes. “By utilizing their barge site, I’m trying to give them the tools necessary and generate revenue so they can stand alone and not be dependent on the state,” he said, noting that he has secured a deal with Gulf County and in St. Marks to enable transportation of the material.
In his report, Shields outlined the history of the state’s effort to reestablish the oyster reefs’ substrate, and said fossilized shell has proven to work the best ever since the state started using it in the early ‘90s.
“The material itself is not in question,” he said. “Apalachicola Bay’s problems stem from lack of freshwater, but droughts and wet years are cyclical.
“Mother nature is not letting us do what we need to do,” Shields said. “We have the opportunity now because we have wet years and predation is down. This is the ideal time to be restoring 4,000 acres of oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay.”
Langston said “the pros far outweigh the cons” when it comes to his project. “Apalachicola Bay won’t have to worry about ever again having suitable cultch material,” he said. “Look north, look in Chesapeake Bay. They have used processed shell and fossilized shell only, and right now their blue crab oysters are the highest they’ve been in (many) years.”
Commissioner Bert Boldt called for more input from state officials, and asked for the matter to be tabled. “This is a pristine area of our state forest,” he said. “I’d like to have a conversation among us about engaging the state of Florida in this thought process. What do they think of this process and how would it impact the environment?”
Langston said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will have an opportunity to make public comment prior to the cabinet’s decision. “All of that comes under great scrutiny; there will be plenty of conversations,” he said. “This allows me to go to the next step.”
Commissioner Ricky Jones called for the action to be considered only after the Tate’s Hell management plan was approved at the state level. “I don’t think we want to start approving something that the state might have problems with,” he said.
“A letter ain’t gonna hurt,” said Lockley. “We’re not going to make the final decision. The land belongs to them, the state going to do what they do.”