‘Are you in Miami or Syria?’ Explosions shake homes, break windows, crack floors

Daniel Molina works in the cyber intelligence business from his home in suburban Miramar, but colleagues dialed in on conference calls sometimes ask if he is posted in a war zone. That’s because Molina lives near a limestone quarry where near daily mining explosions reverberate through his floor, rattle his windows and scramble his brain.

“I’ll be on the phone with people who could be calling from any of 45 countries and the ba-ba-ba-BOOM goes off and they’ll say, ‘Are you in Miami or Syria? Are you in Iraq? Because it sounds like you’re under terrorist attack,’” Molina said.

Molina, who moved out west seeking peace of mind, said the blasting not only shakes the psyche but the entire foundation of his house. He has spent more than $15,000 repairing cracks in his walls, backyard pavers and swimming pool.

A blast can sound like a bomb detonating. It can feel like an earthquake. It makes dogs howl and babies cry. Better not be shaving at that moment. On Tuesday at 1:15 p.m., an alarming explosion emanating from the quarry sent a tremor through Linda Gomez’s house and the bodies of every person in it, a shock wave from the soles of the feet and through the spine that drilled into the skull.

“I would describe that one as medium high, maybe 7 on a scale of 1-10,” Gomez said after the tinkling of glass panes and shuddering of doors stopped. She and husband Milan Bogdanovic work from home in the Riviera Isles section of Miramar, she as an auditor, he as an aviation consultant. “It’s often much more powerful. It’s scary. It’s unsettling. It completely disrupts your concentration. It spooks our kids, our visitors and any repairman who is here when it happens. I usually curse, then try to compose myself and get back to work.”

They’ve spent $5,000 on roof repairs. Their next-door neighbor recently painted his house, and the dozens of fissures that had to be filled “made it look like Frankenstein’s skin,” Gomez said.

“The structural fatigue from constant shaking is affecting these houses,” Bogdanovic said. “This is a nice neighborhood. We don’t want it to become a run-down neighborhood where nobody wants to live.”

Kate Tobon, who lives nearby, points out cracks in her garage floor, patio and bathrooms and around her windows and French doors. Her wood floors are buckling in spots. She’s careful to separate glasses inside cabinets. Take a look at her interior walls: Every painting or photograph hangs crookedly. Out of habit, she straightens them as she walks through the house.

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Kate Tobon and her family live in Riviera Isles, a Miramar neighborhood that is being affected by blasting from the White Rock Quarries. Tobon has started a petition to stop the blasting.

EMILY MICHOT emichot@miamiherald.com

Tobon has led a petition drive and organized a Twitter feed — @nomoreblasting — and Facebook page to record complaints about the company, White Rock Quarries, and seeks reform of blasting regulations. She has seen hundreds of photos and heard hundreds of stories — of crashing chandeliers, of mementos falling off bookshelves, of anguish from elderly people and parents with autistic children.

“The blasting has grown more intense and frequent,” she said. “We have suffered enough.”

Luis Dominguez, a U.S. Army veteran, said the blasts transport him back to combat in Vietnam “because it feels exactly like a mortar round hitting a target.” His wife Eunice, who has Alzheimer’s disease, gets scared and confused by the explosions.

“She looks at me and I have to tell her it’s just thunder,” he said. “But how do you explain something that’s getting longer and louder and seems to have no end?”

Residents in Miramar, Miami Lakes, Palm Springs North and other northwest Miami-Dade and southwest Broward county communities have been complaining about the companyfor years, and they say it’s getting worse as the mining expands outward and closer to homes. They want the state fire marshal who oversees the industry to lower ground vibration limits, set safe boundaries and reduce the amount of blasting.

White Rock Quarries, in reply, says that it occupied the once-remote area first, before rampant development encroached on its operations. The company, which has offices in Hialeah and West Palm Beach, says that it has been complying with laws that regulate mining and the use of explosives for 30 years.

Miners in the billion-dollar industry in Florida are extracting the very material used to build the houses, highways and parking lots surrounding the quarry. Florida, a state that’s been racing to pave paradise for a century, ranks third in the nation in the production and use of crushed limestone products, consuming about 153 million tons per year. About 60 million tons come from the Lake Belt region in western Miami-Dade, according to White Rock Quarries, which is also situated close to fragile wetlands and the Northwest Wellfield that provides 40 percent of Miami-Dade’s potable water. Broward prohibits blasting, but Dade allows it.

Jim Hurley, president of White Rock Quarries, did not return messages but has consistently stated that blasting levels at the quarries are below state limits and that the company wants to co-exist in harmony with adjacent communities.

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One of two upstairs windows at Mari Carmen Rodriguez’s Miramar home, in the Huntington division, that she says have been broken because of blasting from the nearby White Rock Quarries.

EMILY MICHOT emichot@miamiherald.com

But homeowners dread what’s coming. The blast on Tuesday, just west of I-75 near the county lines, was 2,584 feet from the nearest house in Riviera Isles. White Rock Quarries expects to be blasting from a mere 915 feet in the future.

“We ought to thank them for providing construction materials in Florida — that was the attitude of the company when we met with them,” Tobon said. “They said the worst was behind us. But it’s just the opposite. They misled us. They refuse to change anything because reducing intensity or frequency would cost them more.”

Gonzalo Cabrera, whose house in Silver Lakes is full of cracked tiles, is a civil engineer who has worked on oil and gas blasting projects in South America.

“I’ve never seen blasting so close to homes and I don’t know why they allow it,” said Cabrera. His 3-year-old daughter gets upset when the blasts occur. “Nowadays the quarry could do it with less powerful explosives. It will take longer, though. On one project where we were not allowed to use dynamite due to environmental regulations, we used nonexplosive expansive concrete to break rock from the inside out. Brazil and Bolivia have policies that are more restrictive than those here.”

A state review of the accuracy of blasting measurements completed in June showed inconsistencies in the recording equipment, such as seismographs, exacerbating the suspicions of homeowners who believe limits are exceeded or not monitored properly. A more thorough study on the impact of rock mine blasting is to be launched in the next month.

State CFO and Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis acknowledged the “growing concern” among residents and said he intends to work “towards a well-researched, amicable solution” while encouraging homeowners to file complaints at fireprevention@myfloridacfo.com.

Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam made sure his city was included in the study, but sympathizes with residents who are tired of waiting for change.

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A large crane belonging to White Rock Quarries sits at the work site near the Dade/Broward line that has gradually become surrounded by residential development over the years. People who live in the blasting zone say it’s gotten worse as the mining moves closer to their houses.

EMILY MICHOT emichot@miamiherald.com

“The mining company feels caught between a rock and a hard place because development has moved toward them while they are producing a precious commodity necessary for development in Florida,” said Messam, who was given a tour of White Rock Quarries. “But it’s impacting the quality of life. The study will at least give us information to see what we can do to regulate it. Dealing with the state Legislature you have to have your data in place to move things forward so it doesn’t get caught in political demagoguery. It’s hard to refute science. However, they want relief now and I don’t blame them. I live in west Miramar and on occasion I hear the rumble and feel the rattle.”

Miramar City Attorney Jamie Cole said it is “unfortunate” that the study will not include an evaluation of the psychological effects of blasting. He also said it is tougher for homeowners to collect money for structural damage than it was when cities regulated blasting and mediated claims until the state took over in 2003. Now homeowners have to prove their case to a state administrative hearing judge, and it is difficult to link a specific blast to specific damage.

“You’re going up against a company with a lot of experts and lawyers and that makes it nearly impossible for a homeowner to win a claim,” he said.

Bal Cheema has lived for 25 years in Marbella Park in Miami-Dade on the east side of I-75. When he bought his house for $125,000, it was on the edge of swampland and he didn’t know that the mining operation existed. Now his desktop computer shakes during blasts and his backyard tile has an inch-wide crack that “looks like it was caused by a freaking earthquake.”

“It’s ironic that they need that rock material for all the construction that will turn these highways into a spaghetti bowl,” said Cheema, a CPA. “No, you can’t stop an entire industry. It’s like a herd of elephants. But you can slow it down. If they would just lower legal limits to reduce the intensity it would be a good compromise.”

Luis Dominguez said the conflict between industry and humanity was sadly inevitable.

“When we bought here in the boondocks in 2005, it was cows and fields and lakes,” he said. “Now you’ve got a growing population fueling the demand for mining limestone and they’re right up against each other. It’s not quiet anymore.”