February 15, 2015
BROOKSVILLE — Alyce Walker, a spry 87, walks around the nearly four-acre plot where her relatives are buried and stops at a towering live oak.
“That’s where Reverend Abe Tillman was lynched, in 1920,” says Walker, the caretaker of the African American Spring Hill Cemetery, located down a rutted dirt road off Fort Dade Avenue in Brooksville.
There are several hundred men, women and children buried here says Walker, many of them her relatives, many of them veterans, all of them black.
It is an historic place, she says, but one that is constantly under threat.
The unguarded cemetery is a frequent target of trash dumpers, teenage partiers and vandals. Back in 2009, two local teens were arrested for breaking into a crypt and stealing a skull. A defacto road has been edged into the cemetery’s soft sand, close enough to some of the vaults to cause damage by years of people driving through. Almost on cue, as Walker tours the graveyard, a white pickup with a group of young people pulls past, sheepish grins on their faces as if they’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t in a place they have no business being.
But there is an even bigger worry on the horizon, says Walker, wearing a white T-shirt commemorating her late brother Curtis Washington Sr., who died last July and is among those interred here.
Cemex Construction Materials, one of the world’s largest building materials suppliers, has leased nearly 600 acres of land around the cemetery for 20 years and wants to mine for limerock deposits starting in 2019. The company has petitioned Hernando County to allow it to mine as close as 250 feet from the cemetery borders.
“The constant blasting will damage the ground and the vaults and the dirt road,” she says. The resulting dust and particles released, and the noise of the mining is not appropriate, she says, next to an active burial ground which still serves as a final resting place for those connected to the county’s black residents.
Walker has company. A group called Neighbors Against Mining has also been fighting against expanding Cemex’s operations, citing concerns over potential pollution of a local aquifer and wells among other issues.
Company officials disagree with those concerns, telling the Tribune in an email response to questions that “Cemex is respectful of this historic cemetery, and has partnered with an expert team, including noise/vibration experts and archeologists, to ensure that our operations would have no adverse impacts.”
That team includes the Florida Public Archeology Network, at the University of South Florida, which put together a site survey of the cemetery on behalf of Cemex, with a list of recommendations for improvements.
On Dec. 9, Hernando County Commissioners submitted a plan to the state Department of Economic Opportunity, which found no concerns related to important state resources for facilities in the department’s scope of responsibilities. Other state and local agencies weighed in as well with similar findings. The issue comes up for a final vote sometime this Spring.
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What’s now known as the African American Spring Hill Cemetery was established around 1890, according to research done by the Florida Public Archeology Network.
There are 324 bodies buried there, according to the research. About 10 percent are veterans from conflicts dating back to World War I.
“About 1900 the Lykes family, owners of the property, donated the land to the African American community for a cemetery.” according to Hernando Epitaphs: Cemeteries and Memorials of Hernando County a book by Linda Welker and Jan Kainback, according to a letter sent to county commisioners in opposition to the mining. Walker, the cemetery caretaker, whose mother and grandmother are buried there, has been the trustee since 1991 when Lucile Ballard expired.
“She expired in 1991 and I waited for someone to take over,” says Walker. When no one did, the job became hers. Since then, Walker has done what she can to keep the cemetery in order, including paying taxes and overseeing new burials.
The proposed mining operations will spoil the bucolic setting, she says of a graveyard where headstones range from professionally done like the ones for Henry and Lula Waddy, to those that are handmade, like the simple slab with the words “James Williams, August 10, 1910, July 06, 1997 God is Love” hand carved into the cement before it dried.
As he walks through the cemetery with his cousin Alyce, Henry Hart III, whose father and grandfather are buried here, stops at the grave of a high school friend, who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War.
Hercules L. Moore was a Marine lance corporal who was just 20 when he was killed in Vietnam on May 26, 1968, hit by enemy machine-gun fire while attempting to aid other wounded Marines during a firefight, according to Hernando Today. He received a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a National Defense Service Award, a Vietnam Service Medal and a Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal..
“We used to play football together,” says Hart, kneeling down at his old friend’s grave site, marked by a simple headstone and decorated with two faded American flags and a small bouquet of red silk flowers.
A short distance away, Hart stands by the graves of his father, Henry Hart II and grandfather, Henry Hart and talks about the importance of maintaining the cemetery.
“This is a place where we can celebrate their lives and honor them,” says Hart, a retired Air Force master sergeant, who returns several times a year to the town of his birth so he can help his cousin Alyce with the cemetery’s upkeep.
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Cemex has petitioned the county to change about 730 acres of land from Residential and Regional Commercial Overlay to Mining and Regional Commercial Overlay. The vast majority of that — 573 acres — is seeking a zoning change to allow limerock mining.
Alyce Walker isn’t the only one worried about the impact. Neighbors Against Mining sees a litany of problems with the proposal.
The organization cites concerns over pollution, damage to adjacent homes, contamination of fresh water wells, and overall downgrading in the quality of life due to blasting and other noise associated with mining, all of which, they say, will lead to property devaluation.
“Cemex was cited by the EPA for mercury and dioxin emissions at its cement plant further north of this site which will receive and process all the lime rock from this new mine if approved,” according to the group.
The group has also raised concerns about exposure to air pollution and possible interruption of delicate equipment and operations at Bayfront Health Hospital and the removal of a large tract of wild forest that is highly rated as a strategic conservation area that is prime wildlife habitat for endangered wood storks, threatened species such as bald eagles, Florida Black Bear, gopher tortoises and other species of special concern.
Cemex officials dispute these concerns.
“We are actively mining our current site in Hernando County and will be reclaiming the newly zoned property to standards set forth by the State of Florida,” said Sara Engdahl, a company spokeswoman. “As part of our permit, we are required to reclaim the land so that it may be used in a viable manner. Cemex has a long and proud history of successful, award winning reclamation projects across the U.S. and we will apply these practices in Hernando County.”
Blasting at the mine will occur less than 15 minutes per year, says Engdahl, and always in “full compliance with state and federal regulations.”
Independent studies, she said, have concluded that property values have not decreased due to mining operations.
Engdahl says that “exhaustive studies with hydrologists…have found there will be no impacts to the water table, wells, or sinkhole risks.” Nor would there be any effect on the hospital, she says.
“Regarding air pollution, silica generated from the mine is dissipated in miniscule amounts,” says Engdahl. “According to medical experts and regulators alike, silica can be dangerous in enclosed, non-ventilated areas, but poses no danger in open air areas, such as a mine or a beach.”
Other pollution concerns raised by Neighbors Against Mining are also overwrought, says Engdahl.
“Several years ago, Cemex voluntarily reported to the EPA of these emissions and immediately rectified the issue,” she says. “Cement manufacturing is a highly regulated industry and we work diligently to adhere to strict standards. We are committed to operating in a responsible manner and quickly and efficiently address issues if they arise, as we did years ago regarding this situation.
County officials have ordered Cemex to develop a program to replace wildlife that would be lost by the mining operations.
“Cemex takes special care to ensure that we responsibly operate alongside wildlife,” says Engdahl. “Independent biologists noted that gopher tortoise habitats are present. Cemex will obtain a Conservation Permit from the FWC (Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission) and appropriately relocate the gopher tortoises
Engdahl adds that the company is working to preserve the cemetery, and had USF’s Florida Public Archeology Network devise a plan that would provide improvements.
The plan calls for improving the entrance road, the internal road and instituting the network’s cemetery preservation program.
That preservation effort is important, given the cemetery’s history, says Jeff Moates, the network’s director.
“This is a really good opportunity to explore this part of Hernando County history and really enrich the community by celebrating and commemorating the site,” says Moates.
He added that he did not know about the lynching tree described by Walker.
“The lynching tree is the sort of information that needs to be reported,” says Moates.
Walker says that the improvement plans sound good, but she wants to explore them in greater detail.
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Paul Wieczorek, senior planner for the Hernando County Board of Commissioners, said the county is working with Cemex on replacing lost wildlife areas and that the 250-foot barrier is adequate to protect the cemetery.
The mining issue was brought up Tuesday at a Hernando County Commission meeting. Neighbors Against Mining members showed up and continued to express their concerns about the potential economic and environmental effects of mining on the area.
Cemex argues that it is imperative for the company, which brings in $59.1 million per year to the county with wages of $12.5 million from 294 jobs, to mine.
“According to the State of Florida’s Statute 337.0261, there is a critical need for aggregate and disruption to the supply will be detrimental and that mining of aggregate materials is in the public interest,” says Engdahl.
Changing the zoning to allow the mining requires four of the five commissioners to approve, which was the margin that allowed the commission to submit the plan to the state in December.
In addition to the Department of Economic Opportunity, other agencies weighed in on the proposal, via letters to the commission.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had no comment on the proposal, The Southwest Florida Water Management District raised questions about dewatering activities on the parcel and whether there were active wells. Any not proposed for use would have to be properly abandoned.
The Department of Environmental Protection found “no provision that, if adopted, would result in adverse impacts to important state resources subject to the Department’s jurisdiction.
Similarly, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found that, though there are species like gopher tortoises and little blue heron on the land, and while there are several nuisance black bears in the area, it does not object to the proposal.
Commissioners did agree to look into whether it is possible to have an economic impact study done in time to meet deadlines for approving the proposal, which has to be done by July 19. County commission officials say they hope to vote on the measure sometime in April.
The commission will take up the economic impact study again when it meets on Feb. 24.
Alyce Walker wasn’t at the meeting. She says that whatever happens, she hopes it works out for the best interests of the cemetery.
“What are they going to do about the seven generations we have buried here?” she asks.