They came as early as 6:30 a.m. Mosaic employees wore neon yellow shirts, while opponents had anti-Mosaic signs and gas masks that said “No.” They packed the Manatee County Commission chambers, with Mosaic officials crowding the front couple rows and opponents filling an overflow room upstairs.
The hundreds of supporters and opponents alike attended Thursday’s special land use meeting to make their respective case as Manatee County commissioners began their quasi-judicial public hearing regarding the Mosaic Company’s proposal for approval of its Master Mining Plan and the rezoning 3,596 acres of its Wingate East property.
The land is currently zoned as agricultural, and the company is asking to rezone it to extraction. The Master Mining Plan details the setback waivers and special approvals required for mining in the Peace River Watershed Protection Overlay District.
After hearing hours of testimony from Mosaic, county staff and public comment, commissioners unanimously approved continuing the hearing to 10 a.m. Monday in the first-floor commission chambers. The hearing will resume with public comment, and anyone will be afforded the opportunity to speak if they didn’t already address the commission on Thursday.
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Mosaic is already zoned to mine 20,237 acres in Manatee County. Adjacent to the proposed Wingate East mine are Wingate Creek to the west and the Southeast Tract to the north.
The Wingate East approval is first priority for the company. Next on the list will be receiving permits from Hardee and DeSoto counties for the new Ona and DeSoto mines, which are 22,483 acres and 18,287 acres, respectively.
Historically, Mosaic has gotten its rezoning proposals approved by the county commission. In 2008, the county commission initially rejected the rezoning of the Altman Tract – Parcel 4, which is adjacent to their Four Corners mine. Mosaic returned the decision with a $617 million lawsuit citing the Bert Harris Act involving property rights. The suit was dropped and the rezoning was approved.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who was first elected in 2012, said Mosaic has always played a big part in the community, noting that she sees company officials at community events.
“I have had faith in Mosaic and supported you in the past,” she said. “I have a few issues this time. ... I am concerned. It is so close to our watershed and I am concerned about that.”
In August, the planning commission recommended by a 5-1 vote to go forward with the rezoning for the Wingate East mine, with Matt Bower dissenting.
Should the county commission grant Mosaic’s request, the company stills needs a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permit. It would also have to go back before the commission for an operating permit, which maps out mining for a five-year period. Mining would take place at the site until 2034 with reclamation continuing until 2042.
“We come back to you in a phase plan,” said Bart Arrington, Wingate East project manager for Mosaic. “That’s what operating permit is.”
Baugh questioned why Mosaic was coming before the county prior to securing all necessary permits.
“We are going to need to get in this area in the next year or two,” Arrington said. “That is why we are coming to you are now. We are at a point that we need to move into the area so that’s why we are asking.”
Without the permits, Mosaic “can’t mine until we get all of them,” Arrington said.
Mosaic makes its case to expand mining operation
During their 90-minute presentation, eight people representing Mosaic discussed topics ranging from specifics of the mining process to health concerns to relocating species found on site.
Mosaic also addressed the sinkhole at its New Wales processing facility in Mulberry. Manatee County would not be affected, the representatives contended, because there wouldn’t be any “gypstacks” in the county, and the county as a whole is less likely to have sinkholes because of a thick confining layer and lower difference between surface water level and the Floridan aquifer.
Mosaic assured commissioners that residents would be notified immediately, upon discovery, should a situation occur at the Manatee mining operations.
“I think the citizens should truly be notified immediately,” Baugh said. “I know in the past, with the sinkhole, that wasn’t the case.”
Arrington responded: “We don’t want there to be these types of problems, certainly.”
Although Mosaic would be destroying wetlands on its property, officials suggested that when the land is reclaimed after mining is complete, there would be a net gain in the amount of wetlands.
Although there would be a net positive functional gain, it can take from 10 to 20 years for the wetlands to get there.
Despite having a proposed 649 acres of wetland impacts, what Mosaic is proposing is unlike anything Joel Christian, with Manatee County’s environmental planning division, said he’s seen come before the commission.
“There were areas that we have concerns about and still do,” he said. “We still have some concerns with this proposal.”
This is Mosaic’s last big expansion in Manatee, said Mosaic spokeswoman Jackie Barron.
“It’s critical to the future of the mine,” she said.
When asked by Commissioner Charles Smith about new job creation from this rezoning, Mosaic’s Arrington replied that the rezoning would maintain existing employees at the Wingate site.
Smith also had concerns about wells on the site. “If they are not closed, unless dried up, there is water running under underground.”
“You never know until it happens,” Smith said of potential sinkholes. “In Florida, there have been sinkholes come under homes, come under businesses unexpectedly. It still don’t prevent the possibility of sinkholes.”
Overflow crowd fills commission meeting
Based on the number of people who signed up to speak at Thursday’s public hearing, it would have resulted it 11 hours and 45 minutes of public comment, according to the county attorney’s office. The commission chambers were filled all day.
“There are an awful number of people signed up,” Bill Clague, assistant county attorney, told commissioners.
Before the hearing began, more than 100 people lined up outside of the county administration building. Mosaic employees said they lined up around 6:30 a.m. and high-visiblity Mosaic shirts dominated the front of the line. Manatee County residents and out-of-towners came to the hearing to express their concerns.
“(The commission has) to be aware that this has the potential of ruining our civilization,” said Joan San Lwin of North Port.
Residents also worried about what would happen after the phosphate resources dried up.
“(Mosaic is) going to be here telling about what they can do,” said Palmetto resident Margaret Wright. “They’ll be long gone, taking our resources and their money and (leave) us with nothing.”
The majority of individuals addressing the commission Thursday spoke against the proposal.
While Mosaic has property rights, the residents of Manatee County do as well, said Stuart Smith, who represents the Sierra Club.
“We have more to offer than phosphate,” he said. “We are Manatee County, not Mosaic.”
Before commission members makes a decision, they need to make sure the issues are resolved, said Sandra Ripberger, who had a petition with more than 200 Manatee County residents’ signatures.
“There is strong concern about these plans and rezone,” she said. “It is time for Manatee County to take a critical look at the potential impact of phosphate mining.”
For Debbie Mafera, whose home abuts where Mosaic wants to mine, she said she will be directly affected by any mining operations.
“Any mining Mosaic proposes will be as they are mining our property,” she said. “We will be directly affected 24 hours a day seven days a week.”
But a couple residents spoke favorably of Mosaic during Thursday’s hearing.
East Manatee resident Carlyn O’Reilly, whose husband works for Mosaic, said she had no knowledge of Mosaic prior to moving to Florida but learned that any preconceived notions she had were not correct.
O’Reilly said she learned Mosaic is “a company that was a steward of the environment.”
“The vote to expand the Wingate mine will impact thousands of jobs in Manatee County,” she said. “This vote will have a direct impact on my family’s future in Manatee County.”
Since Mosaic invests in children, Myakka City resident Lynn Howell said that’s how he knows they will do what they say they will.
“They are good neighbors,” he said. “They are not always right, but they will do their best.”