MIAMI, Florida- A federal court in Miami has blocked the permits for a massive limestone mining project near Everglades National Park that could have contaminated Miami-Dade County’s largest freshwater wellfield.

In a 177 page opinion issued last Friday, Judge William Hoeveler blasted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for “ongoing disregard” for critical health and environmental risks, including the recent discovery of benzene in the drinking water wells.

“In three decades of federal judicial service, this Court has never seen a federal agency respond so indifferently to clear evidence of significant environmental risks related to the agency’s proposed action,” wrote Judge Hoeveler.

He admonished the Corps for its “apparently unyielding determination to approve mining, regardless of the demonstrated risks of adverse impacts,” and a “disregard” for public participation.

“The mines threatened to poison the drinking water of millions of Miami-Dade residents by introducing cancer-causing chemicals and dangerous bacteria into local wells,” said attorney Brad Sewell with the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

“The federal government abdicated its responsibility to protect these communities and our environment,” he said. “Fortunately, the judge decided to right this egregious wrong.”

The lawsuit, filed nearly five years ago by the NRDC, the Sierra Club, and the National Parks Conservation Association, also charged that deep-pit limestone mining operations would threaten the multi-billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

“The project would have destroyed endangered Everglades wetlands and blocked water flows into Everglades National Park,” said NPCA Regional Director John Adornato.

The same judge ruled in March 2006 that the Army Corps, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, violated federal law by ignoring the threat the project posed to the environment when they approved it in April 2002.

Because the earlier ruling did not actually set aside the Army Corps permits, the Corps has allowed mining to continue while it studies the problem.

Scientists with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had previously objected to the project because the mining pits would have destroyed thousands of acres of rare wildlife habitat and forced more water to seep out of the Everglades.

The agencies’ objections were withdrawn by the Bush administration.

Scientists have become increasingly concerned that the current half-mile buffer zone around 15 wells near the planned site is dangerously inadequate.

Plaintiffs have long warned that the mining projects could allow potentially lethal parasites, including cryptosporidium, to enter the Miami-Dade drinking water system.

Judge Hoeveler’s ruling applies only to the mining sites closest to the wells, allowing work to continue on areas farther away until the Corps finishes its environmental studies, estimated to be one to two years away.

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