BRADENTON -- After hours of debate, Manatee County commissioners voted 4-3 Thursday to allow Mosaic Fertilizer LLC to extend the Wingate Creek phosphate mine near Duette.
The debate was marked by picketers outside the County Administrative Center Thursday morning, and a standing-room-only crowd in commission chambers, which was eventually dispersed to watch the proceedings via video elsewhere at the center.
Late in the day, the commission approved the company’s request for rezoning of 645.9 acres on the east side of the Wingate Creek Mine, and in a separate motion, it also approved the company’s master mining plan.
Voting in favor of the two proposals were County Commission Chairman John Chappie; and commissioners Donna Hayes, Larry Bustle and Carol Whitmore.
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Voting against were commissioners Joe McClash, Michael Gallen and Robin DiSabatino.
An effort by McClash to make the company pay $5 million, or to avoid 48.4 acres of wetlands on its property that would be affected by the mining, failed.
“It just smells of extortion,” complained Hayes of McClash’s motion.
However, the commission did get stipulations written into the deal that it considered plusses.
The company had previously agreed to contribute $100,000 for a hydrologic study of wetlands at the nearby Duette Preserve, where the headwaters of the Manatee River originate.
Thursday, it sweetened the deal with another $100,000 to implement the study’s findings, which would bolster existing wetlands in the preserve.
The company also agreed to use a certain type of equipment called dredges exclusively in its mining at the Wingate extension.
“Obviously, we’re pleased with the decision,” said Bartley E. Arrington, Mosaic’s manager of mine permitting, after the vote.
He acknowledged that there were “strong emotions” on each side, but hoped to continue to work closely with county officials.
Opponents of the plan were dismayed.
“We thought it was predictable -- we hoped it would be otherwise,” said Roy McChesney, 83, of Bradenton, who had earlier urged the commission to reject the plan, asking, “Will jobs always trump the ecology?”
There was much discussion of what the mining would do to the land and water, with scientists representing Mosaic predicting minimal effects, and those representing environmental groups predicting a serious decline in water quality and quantity.
Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, a local environmental public health organization, said the mine should never have been allowed in the first place, as the area spawns the headwaters of the Myakka River, designated by the state as an Outstanding Florida Water.
“We shouldn’t expand upon an existing mistake,” Compton said.
A number of speakers suggested the commission wait for results of a regional environmental study underway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the company insisted the Wingate extension was outside its purview and had met all local requirements.
John Garlanger, senior vice president and chief engineer at Ardaman & Associates in Orlando, said that the company was allowed to use up to 5.8 million gallons of water a day, noting that amount would not change if mining were approved at the Wingate extension.
Arrington acknowledged under questioning that one reason the company is seeking to extend the mine is that it is running out of phosphate ore.
The company has even had to import ore from foreign countries in order to keep its operations running, he said.
If the county failed to approve mining of the extension, the ore would be exhausted, and the Wingate Creek mine would be closed, Arrington told the commission.
The mine employs 151 workers, and uses independent contractors, such as Steve Hill, 51, of Polk County, who was among an army of observers at the hearing wearing distinctive white shirts with the “Mosaic” emblem embroidered on the front.
“We would be laid off if the mine closed -- we have 74 employees,” said Hill, whose company maintains Mosaic’s mobile equipment. “We are here to support the mining process.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031.
How they voted:
Voting was for two proposals to allow phosphate mining at the Wingate Creek extension
John Chappie, Donna Hayes, Larry Bustle and Carol Whitmore
Joe McClash, Michael Gallen and Robin DiSabatino