Lauren Ritchie: Green Swamp committee is rigged to favor mining interests

When politicians wanted to trick the public in years past, they were quite artful about it. Sometimes, they were so clever that one could only sit back and admire.

Locally, the master of selling sand to the Saudis was that sly character, the late Steve Richey. By the time he finished telling county commissioners why they needed to OK a cookie-cutter subdivision he was hawking, a listener would swear that Shangri-la was coming to Lake County.

Aw, shucks. Just doin' my job, ma'am, he'd say.

Now, however, politicians and those around them have dropped the pretense of gentility. It's getting downright mean out there.

The trend in Lake started with former Superintendent of Schools Anna Cowin. She used a simple technique: Say something enough in public and people will believe it.

When confronted about her inaccurate declarations, Cowin often used to say that she "misspoke." Other times, she got choked up and blamed the media. Most often, she simply declined to explain the gap between her statements and the truth.

That method has evolved into a scheme whereby those in power redraw the lines of any issue to suit them and then declare what is best for the public. Never mind that their stories are half made up and will benefit only them and their campaign contributors.

Woe unto those with a different opinion, even if it's based in fact. They're not just wrong — they're either marginalized as nut cases or belittled as unimportant.

An excellent example of how these insidious techniques work occurred last week in the Lake County Commission meeting.

The agenda stated that commissioners were being asked to approve the creation of the Green Swamp Mining Committee, which was to decide "whether additional protections" are needed in the environmentally fragile area regarding mining. The committee was being set up as part of the new comprehensive plan, the county's blueprint for growth.

A group of local activists who worked hard on helping to write the plan immediately picked up the nuance of the statement.

They said the committee was intended to report on what other protections are needed in the swamp, not "whether" they are needed. The writers of the plan are keenly aware that the swamp is designated an Area of Critical State Concern and is the source of water for the underground Floridan Aquifer, from which much of the state drinks.

One of the plan writers stated in a an email that commissioners approved the plan last year "recognizing that serious unanswered questions exist with respect to environmental impacts of mining in the Green Swamp, that current regulations were insufficient, and that a committee was needed to identify additional protections."

The new wording was created on the fly at a County Commission meeting when only two commissioners supported the original wording.

So, where is this going? Is it an exercise in splitting hairs? Let's look further.

Consider the makeup of the new seven-member mining committee: It has one environmental advocate, one hydrologist or geologist and one person from either the water management district or the state's gutted Department of Environmental Protection. Those three should be focused on protecting drinking water.

The other four are part of the mining industry: one representative from the sand-mining industry; one from the Mining Industry Association; one "environmental consultant," which is to say "one minion for the mining industry"; and the member that tilts the committee's composition against the environment, a representative of the peat-mining industry.

Peat mining is not allowed in the Green Swamp, and for good reason. It is harmful to wetlands, which need particular protection in the critical recharge area.

So, why is a representative of the industry needed on the committee? Brian Sheahan, the county's chief planner, said the committee might recommend making "more global" changes in mining rules that could affect peat mining outside the swamp.

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