May 11--To ease Miami International Airport's money crunch, the county's aviation department wants to turn little-used Opa-locka West airport into a limerock mine.
Selling mining rights on the 420 acres at the far northwest corner of Miami-Dade County could inject MIA with hundreds of millions of dollars, aviation department managers say -- money that could lower the airport's spiraling costs.
The land could become even more valuable because the future of a major source of the county's limerock -- the so-called "Lake Belt" -- is uncertain. A federal judge is reassesing mining permits in that area, questioning whether regulators properly ensured the safety of the Everglades and the Biscayne Aquifer, which supplies much of the county's drinking water.
The possibility of curtailing mining -- Miami-Dade's mines supply an estimated half of the state's concrete and fill -- is why the Florida Department of Transportation has an interest in Opa-locka West.
"It's an idea that's worth pursuing because we've seen enormous cost increases [in rock]," said FDOT Secretary Denver Stutler.
FDOT has discussed the issue with Miami-Dade County aviation director Jose Abreu, Stutler's predecessor. Abreu envisions a partnership between FDOT, the aviation department and a private company to mine the site.
The plan to close Opa-locka West must first be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is expected to make a decision in the next two weeks.
Opa-locka West, 10 miles northwest of Opa-locka Airport, has two small 3,000-foot runways used strictly for touch-and-go landings. It has been closed since Hurricane Wilma, and its annual operations have fallen from 100,000 flights in 1991 to 11,750 in 2005, according to the aviation department.
Aviation officials say the airport is difficult to maintain and is often used illegally for drag racing and all-terrain vehicles.
The proliferation of simulators has lessened the need for touch-and-go landings at Opa-locka West. Abreu said pilots could use Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport, located in the Everglades.
"It's good to have more runways than less, yes, but our airport is financially stressed," Abreu said. "I said some of my proposals would be out of the box, and this is one of them."
The potential closing has upset some members of the county's aviation community, who believe the county should work to keep the airport in business.
The Opa-locka Airport Association, in a letter to the FAA last week, charged that the poor condition of Opa-locka West and the larger Opa-locka Airport is the result of the aviation department's intentional neglect.
They point to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport as a thriving airport for general aviation aircraft, but charges the aviation department has funneled money meant for its smaller airports to MIA.
The association wrote: "The reality is that Miami-Dade has intentionally created an artificial argument that X-46 [the shortened name for Opa-locka West] no longer has aeronautical use nor is needed . . . In the simplest of terms it is Miami-Dade County's version of having your cake and eating too."
Rusty Chapman, manager of the FAA's airports division for the southern region, said the agency realizes Opa-locka West is little used.
"But the FAA prefers that airports not close," Chapman said. "We've received a lot of complaints, including aircraft owners and pilots."
If the FAA approves closing the airport, FDOT would likely conduct borings on the site to determine the amount and quality of the limerock. No detailed analysis has been conducted.
MDAD officials believe the site contains 47 million cubic yards of rock -- worth between $300 million and $1.2 billion, depending on the quality. That would be a welcome infusion to MIA, which is saddled with debt from the construction of the still-unfinished North and South terminals.
"I never thought it would be rocks that would help us out," said Bruce Drum, MIA's deputy director of operations, about the airport's money crunch.
Opa-locka West is in the Lake Belt, but is relatively far from the area's well fields.
Carlos Espinosa, acting director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management, said a preliminary review of the proposal doesn't raise any red flags about environmental harm. The airport already is surrounded by other mines.
"It seems compatible with the surrounding uses," Espinosa said.