Four environmental organizations this week filed a notice of intent to sue against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approving more than 50,000 acres for phosphate mining in Central Florida.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Manasota-88, Suncoast Waterkeeper and People for Protecting Peace River argue in their notice to the federal agencies to amend within 60 days outlined violations of Sections 7 and 9 of the Endangered Species Act, which involves interagency cooperation and prohibited acts, or they will sue.
Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity and staff attorney, said Thursday that phosphate mining makes land “ticking time bombs” and leaves a “toxic legacy” because mining activities leave behind scars in the land and produce millions of gallons of indisposable radioactive water.
The four projects the groups have issue with are Mosaic Company’s South Pasture Extension Mine, the Desoto Mine, the Ona Mine and the Wingate East Mine. The four exist just south of the Peace River watershed within a 1.32 million-acre area across a span in Manatee, Hillsborough, Polk and DeSoto counties called the Central Florida Phosphate District.
To describe Mosaic’s operations in the simplest sense, phosphate rock is pulled from the ground in a mixture of phosphate pebbles, sand and clay. According to Mosaic, the overburden, or sandy layer, is removed using draglines and dumped into a containment area. Water guns turn the material into a watery slurry, then it is processed at a plant where it’s physically separated from the clay and sand.
The clay is disposed of at clay settling areas, or “slime ponds,” where it sinks to the bottom. Radioactive uranium is naturally found in the phosphate rock, so bringing it to the surface can increase radioactive activity there, according to Manatee County. Florida Administrative Code requires routine inspections of these areas. Also, phosphogypsum is produced as a solid byproduct and stored in piles called stacks, where acidic water is contained. Mosaic says 90 percent of the water is recycled at its facilities.
Mosaic dubs itself the world’s largest fertilizer producer and has deep and far-reaching roots in Florida. Mosaic makes efforts to reclaim the land post-mining, but even Richard Cantrell, director of the Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Mine Reclamation, told Florida Trend in 2008 that the wetlands won’t get back to the way they were.
Federally listed endangered and threatened species live within mining areas, including the crested caracara and Florida panther, gopher tortoise and bald eagles. Mosaic outlined its plan to manage habitats and species before, during and after mining in its request to rezone.
The Center for Biological Diversity typically executes its mission to protect and conserve through litigation, but Lopez said it’s the organization’s first foray into suing against phosphate mining.
This potential lawsuit comes before the Jan. 26 Manatee County Commission meeting that will address Mosaic’s request to rezone nearly 3,600 acres of its East Manatee Wingate Mine property so they can conduct more mining activities. Mosaic postponed its original commission hearing scheduled for Sept. 29 after it was publicly discovered that a sinkhole had opened at its Mulberry New Wales facility, dumping 215 million gallons of the radioactive wastewater into the Floridan Aquifer. The sinkhole had been kept secret from the public for three weeks.
Mosaic public affairs manager Jackie Barron said the decision had nothing to do with the sinkhole.
“Even if you don’t care that we’re using tens of thousands of acres of (endangered species) habitat, you might care about the future of water security is potentially threatened by phosphogypsum stacks,” Lopez said.
At the Manatee County planning commission meeting in August, Mosaic’s mine permitting manager Bart Arrington said the company mines 72,600 acres in Manatee County, which is 15 percent of the entire county using 2010 U.S. Census county size data.
Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources department presented its findings to the planning commission, saying that there are only 1,041 acres of wetlands on the property, but 649 acres of those wetlands would be affected by the expansion of mining activities.
The planning commission approved the proposed rezone, 5-1, with commission member Matt Bower dissenting.
Lopez spoke at the planning commission meeting and plans to be at the county commission meeting as well.
“We are aware of this notice,” said Nakeir Nobles, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday. “We won’t speculate on any possible future events that may happen.”
Nobles added that the Corps follows all applicable laws and isn’t biased when making regulatory decisions.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren said they received the notice and are reviewing options.
“We’re trying to determine the best path forward,” Warren said.
Barron, Mosaic’s spokeswoman, said that shutting down mining operations would put 4,000 Floridians out of work.
“Despite the fact that the phosphate industry accounts for more than $12.2 billion in annual regional economic activity, the Center for Biological Diversity will stop at nothing to harm the industry,” Barron wrote in an email.
“We’re not going to give up one more inch,” Lopez said.
Mosaic Company’s full statement on environmental groups’ intent to sue U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
“Shutting down one of Florida’s most important industries would put 4,000 Floridians out of work and jeopardize our efforts to help farmers throughout America grow the food we need. According to the Port of Tampa’s annual economic study, Mosaic’s business activities create nearly 45,000 jobs in the region and result in $3.1 billion in personal income annually. Despite the fact that the phosphate industry accounts for more than $12.2 billion in annual regional economic activity, the Center for Biological Diversity will stop at nothing to harm the industry. They clearly demonstrate no regard for the thousands of families that their actions threaten.
Industry opponents fail to take into account the fact these permits require every acre of land we use is reclaimed for nature, farming or other beneficial uses. They are not telling the public these permits are based on a two-year comprehensive environmental analysis as part of an Areawide Environmental Impact Statement. This process benefited from input from local communities, environmental organizations and the public, and involved all local, state and federal environmental agencies. The federal permit was issued following the most comprehensive phosphate mine permitting process in the history of the industry.
We have full confidence in the strength of the South Pasture Extension permits. The permits for the mine extension are legally sound and provide all the protections necessary to comply with all local, state and federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act.
We are confident in the comprehensive environmental review of all of our proposed projects.”