For years now, California and Florida have led the nation in growth, and there is no doubt that these two states will be among the growth leaders for decades to come. Texas and Arizona will not be far behind.
But a troubling trend that could impact residential, commercial, and public works projects in those states is the looming aggregates shortages, coupled with an anti-permitting sentiment. Developments in Florida have particularly troubling consequences for that state's construction aggregates industry.
This past summer, in the case of Sierra Club v. Flowers et al, a judge called for an immediate halt to about one-third of all limestone quarrying in the Lake Belt region just west of Miami-Dade County. The judge cited water quality as the major issue, despite years of rigorous monitoring and review by every county, state, and federal agency with expertise and authority over safe drinking water.
If this ruling is allowed to stand, it could have a dramatic impact on the state's economy, as 55 million of the 143 million tons of aggregates consumed annually throughout Florida are sourced from the Lake Belt region. The Florida DOT has stated that a prolonged, complete shutdown could result in $28.6 billion in lost economic output annually, along with a loss of 288,000 jobs representing $11.2 billion in wages.
The Lake Belt dilemma has only compounded the challenge of diminishing aggregate reserves and the impact these dwindling resources will have on constraining growth. Before the judge's ruling, the Florida DOT issued a seminal study setting forth the near-term crisis the state faces in its aggregates demand to assure continued growth.
The study found that existing mine permit applications are routinely challenged and seriously delayed, with temporary bans often issued at the local level. In the meantime, output from permitted mines continues. But as older mines come closer to exhausting their reserves, the quality of the material is declining and does not meet specifications for many applications.
But it is the report's quantitative findings that are frightening: The known in-state reserves to produce 150 million tons of aggregates annually do not appear to be adequate for the state's projected level of growth for the next 10 years and beyond. And this report was issued before the Lake Belt ruling, which will dramatically accelerate that time frame.
Importing material is not a near-term solution. Florida's ports will have to be increased by five to 10 times current capacity to handle the increased tonnage. There also is the significant rail infrastructure needed for efficient intra-state distribution.
The only solution is sweeping regulatory change, with local governments being pressed to view the big picture and push back from the pressure of vocal opposition each time a new mining project is proposed.
To the credit of Florida's politicians, they understand this looming crisis and have addressed it recently by creating the Strategic Aggregates Review Task Force. This group will recommend improvements in policy and public investment regarding the supply of limestone aggregate. It will evaluate the availability and disposition of construction aggregate materials and related mining and land use practices.
Its agenda includes changes in the aggregates arena, availability and locations of the natural resource, land use issues, and public and private investments in infrastructure, including access to ports, railroads, and roads. The findings will be reported by Feb. 1, 2008. Not a moment too soon.