After three days of public hearings and months of waiting, the Manatee County Commission on Wednesday approved Mosaic Company’s request to expand phosphate mining operations in Manatee County.
Despite the majority of public comments voiced in opposition during the hearings, the commission, in two 5-2 votes, approved both a request to rezone 3,596 acres of Mosaic’s Wingate East property for mining, as well as the Master Mining Plan. The mining at Wingate East will be completed around 2034, with reclamation ending around 2042.
“I don’t like mining,” said Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac, who voted in favor of Mosaic’s proposal. “The fact of the matter is they have property rights. Mining is a specific listed property right.”
In addition to Benac, voting in favor were commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Steve Jonsson, Priscilla Whisenant Trace and Carol Whitmore.
Commissioners Robin DiSabatino and Charles Smith cast the dissenting votes.
Before they voted Wednesday, Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague told commissioners “a total denial outright, that could be a tough case for us to defend.”
“That’s probably not the most helpful legal advice you’ve ever gotten,” he said.
During the public hearing, the “compelling overriding public benefit” hadn’t been sufficiently demonstrated, DiSabatino said.
“I don’t think that they have demonstrated the overriding public purpose,” she said. “They can utilize their land for agricultural. ... I think everything should be done to protect this valuable resource at its source.”
Commissioners directed staff to schedule a workshop on mining in Manatee County.
“Sooner rather than later,” Trace said.
Before they approved the request, commissioners removed three setback waivers that were initially included in the mining plan.
“Now that means that we have drawings, figures and tables and text in our application that refer to those things,” Bart Arrington, Mosaic’s mine permitting manager, said after the hearing. “We have to change everything to take all of those things out and get it back before staff, and we are required to get it back before them before they will sign a resolution.”
While Mosaic still needs some permits, including one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as an operating permit from Manatee County before mining can begin, Arrington said they are pleased with Wednesday’s decision.
“There is still some work we need to do,” he said. “There’s some other approvals we need to get. This is just the first step in many.”
With as many as 75 public comments heard during the Mosaic public hearing, the majority of individuals who addressed the commissioners spoke against the proposal, asking that the commissioners think of the destruction of wetlands, how Mosaic handled the New Wales sinkhole and how mining would not be in the public interest.
After the commission voted in favor of Mosaic, many of the residents filling the chamber rose in disgust and loudly criticized the commissioners’ decision.
Manatee County residents Ricky and Debbie Mafera live adjacent to the Wingate East property.
“We’ll just take it one step at a time,” Ricky Mafera said after the hearing. “I’m not giving up the fight, that’s for sure. ... The people got stepped on and we got to come to Mosaic’s kangaroo court, bought and paid for.”
His wife, Debbie, added: “Anything Mosaic wanted, they snapped and let them have it. Anything the people needed to keep them safe and their families safe, the commissioners didn’t care. They don’t need to be sitting in those chairs to represent the people, because they don’t.”
Hugh McGuire, attorney for Mosaic, has contributed to the campaigns of five county commissioners, according to the Manatee supervisor of elections’ website.
McGuire gave $500 to Jonsson in his 2016 campaign, $200 to Benac in her 2016 campaign, $200 to Smith in his 2014 campaign, $100 to Whitmore in her 2014 campaign and $100 to Baugh in her 2012 campaign.
The commission’s decision means that Garrett Ramy won’t be able to proceed with his plans for an organic farm, because he said his organic status will be revoked.
“You like to think that the system will work for the people, especially the ones they represent, but apparently big corporate America wins again,” he said.
In the past, Arrington said, Mosaic has been good neighbors to the residents and they are still open to discussing everything.
“There is a lot of differences of opinion,” he said. “I hope in time we can work with some of those folks who didn’t necessarily support our application, and try to get them to either understand our position or maybe have an opportunity to educate them on what we do.”
While there are 24,000 acres of Mosaic property permitted to be mined in Manatee County, Mosaic’s total property holdings in the county equal 44,000 acres.
“We have no plans as of yet but they are holdings,” Arrington said of the other property. “We don’t have any mining plans associated with that.”