Will DeSantis step in to stop unauthorized mining in Lake County?

VIDEO: Will DeSantis step in to stop unauthorized mining in Lake County?

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — We’re asking the governor’s office if he plans to step in to stop the Florida Department of Transportation from purchasing dirt from what officials call unauthorized borrow pits in Lake County.

9 Investigates has been reporting for months about the unauthorized pits in the Wekiva River Basin, and the concerns about what all that digging could do to the protected Wekiva River.

Investigative Reporter Karla Ray got ahold of a letter that was just sent to the governor’s office by Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine, acting in his role as Chairman of the Wekiva River Basin Commission. The letter accusing the Florida Department of Transportation of creating a market for unpermitted digging, potentially harming the environment, and using taxpayer money to do so.

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“I know if Gov. DeSantis finds out what’s going on, there should be some heads falling,” neighbor Sue Ray said. Ray’s property is next to a pit known as the Lake County Fish Farm, which is one of several providing dirt to FDOT for the Wekiva Parkway project.

After failing to get a mining permit, the owners of Lake County Fish Farm reached a settlement agreement with Lake County to haul some dirt, but leaders confirmed today the property is out of compliance with part of that agreement.

“You’re supposed to be in a protected area here,” Sue Ray said.

Other operations, including Whitewater Farms and the Walkabout Ranch property, are being sued by Lake County and challenged by other state agencies for digging without authorization, putting the environment at risk.

“It has been a challenge, trying to let your neighbor do what they want to do to make some money, but then you get to a point where, hey, this is affecting a lot of different lives here,” Sue Ray said. “You can’t just buy a piece of property and do whatever.”

Read the letter below:

After months of complaints and stories by 9 Investigates, the Wekiva River Basin Commission is stepping in and asking the Governor to get involved. Constantine wrote in part that FDOT is ‘creating a market for these unauthorized borrow pit operators… in clear disregard of the environmental harm that may be occurring,’ going on to say that Florida’s natural resources, the Wekiva River, and the citizens of Florida whose tax dollars fund the roadway project, deserve better.

“This has gotten way out of hand, and now my fear is, are they going to walk away and leave this mess? Then what happens,” Sue Ray said.

We reached out to the governor’s office to see what he would do in response to the letter but we are still waiting to hear back.

We also made attempts to reach the owners or attorneys for the pits mentioned in the letter. The owners have said in the past and in court records that they do not need permission to excavate due to agricultural exemptions, but Lake County and state agencies that regulate this type of digging disagree.