Phosphate mining damages environment, but also drives economy, study finds

skennedy@bradenton.comMay 12, 2013 

MANATEE -- A new study predicts considerable damage to Central Florida's environment if four proposed phosphate mining projects win approval, but contends that mitigation would more than make up for long-term adverse effects.

"Mitigation" refers to methods of offsetting impacts to natural resources.

About 9,800 acres of wetlands and close to 50 miles of streams would be damaged or destroyed if four proposed mining projects, including one in Manatee County, win approval, said John Fellows, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which commissioned the two-year study.

But Fellows said he expected that, as reviews of individual projects move forward, the number of acres impacted "will probably be reduced."

And there would be 6,340 more jobs because of the mines, and $29.1 billion in value added to the area's economy, Fellows said.

The study concluded that, over time, the cumulative economic impacts of not allowing mining would be substantial, Fellows said.

The Corps' Areawide Environmental Impact Statement reviewed four proposed mines and two expected to be developed across the 1.32 million-acre Central Florida Phosphate District.

Its purview included the 3,635-acre proposed Wingate East Mine, near Duette; and

the 24,509-acre Pine Level/Keys Tract, in southeastern Manatee County.

The study attempted to discern the cumulative effect of mining on the environment of Manatee and its neighboring phosphate-producing counties.

"The areawide (study) does not shy away from saying that mining is an impactive activity," Fellows noted in an interview Friday with the Herald. "A lot of the potential impacts associated are addressed through either the Corps' own permitting processes or other agencies' permitting processes.

"We'll work with the applicant to avoid and minimize impacted acreage," said Fellows. "The figures probably will come down."

As part of its continued review of the four applications, the Corps will look at how to offset impacts to wetlands and surface waters and streams, he emphasized.

Environmentalists criticized the report, saying it is too narrow in scope to adequately address complex environmental issues, said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88 Inc., a local nonprofit environmental research group.

"Because of the limited scope of the AEIS, its usefulness in evaluating the social, economic and environmental impacts the phosphate industry is having in Florida is also limited," he said.

Some of the issues Compton would like addressed: Cumulative impacts on human health as related to increased radiation levels associated with phosphate mining and waste disposal, and data about the tremendous energy use of phosphate plants and resulting pressure for more power plants.

The Corps should also have reviewed water and air pollution, and threats to water supplies involving the underground aquifer, and what he called "the real possibility of dam breaks" contaminating waters downstream from phosphate facilities, Compton said.

Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County's natural resources director, declined comment Friday, saying he is still reading the 25-pound document. But he plans to provide a full report to the county commission at a later date.

"The study is intended to inform the public as to the potential impacts of phosphate mining and how such impacts may be mitigated, information which is useful to the Corps and the public during review of pending applications governed by provisions of the federal Clean Water Act…," said Dee Allen, mine permitting manager for Mosaic.

The company will be seeking a permit to develop the Wingate East Mine, with future plans to develop the Pine Level/Keys Tract as well, she said.

The study's overarching topics include effects on surface water reserves, groundwater reserves, water quality, ecological resources, and economics, she noted.

"While the study generally finds phosphate mining's impacts are minor, in a few areas it finds that greater impacts would occur without mitigation," Allen said.

The study accentuates the good job phosphate companies are doing with respect to modern reclamation practices and the ability to restore wetlands and habitats disturbed by mining, she said.

"Good mitigation is the basis for continued mining," Allen said, adding "It's about the excellence and importance of restoration."

"That's the basis of continuing to mine," she said.

In terms of conclusions, Allen said that while the study does reach conclusions about the impact of mining in general, it does not make any final permitting decisions.

"When it comes to the Corps approving what will ultimately be mined or not, there's still a lot of work to be done on individual applications," she said.

"We have as a company made huge advancements with regard to reclamation," said Jackie Barron, Mosaic's public affairs manager.

Mining companies are trying to recycle and reuse water as much as they can to cut down on ecological impacts, said Thomas L. Crisman, Ph.D., a freshwater ecologist at Tampa's University of South Florida.

And while mitigation can be an environmentally-effective strategy to counter the destruction that phosphate mining visits on the land, it is not a cure-all, he said.

"Collectively, we have 50 years of experience on reclamation," he said. "What you have to be careful of: Are you going to restore that land? No, you can't put it back exactly as it was. Are you going to reclaim that landscape? Yes, but it's not like an exact copy."

"My thing is: We're not restoring the landscape the way it was, we're reclaiming it to meet goals of conservation, water use and water storage," he added. "You give value back to the land."

Scientists have found it's possible to re-create a wetland, and within two years, it will look natural, he said. Within five years, it begins to actually function as a wetland as well, he said.

After that, animals come back "pretty darn fast," Crisman added.

The study's compilation was directed by the Corps, and authored by its staff members, and those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the consulting firm CH2M HILL, Fellows said. Although the multimillion-dollar study was paid for by Mosaic and CF Industries, Inc., the two phosphate companies seeking permits for mines, the Corps was the source of its conclusions.

A "review period" about the study's contents continues through June 3, he said.

To comment, contact John Fellows, USACE AEIS Project Manager; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; 10117 Princess Palm Ave., Suite 120, Tampa 33610-8302; phone, 813-769-7067; fax, 813-769-7061, e-mail: teamaeis@phosphateaeis.org.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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