A two-year environmental impact study bankrolled by two major Florida phosphate companies concedes the undeniable fact that phosphate mining is destructive -- an "impactive activity," Army Corps of Engineers project manager John Fellows remarked in a Herald report. That qualifies as a candidate for understatement of the year.
The Corps' Areawide Environmental Impact Statement predicts significant environmental damage to 9,800 acres of wetlands and almost 50 miles of streams should four Central Florida mining projects gain federal approval.
That includes the proposed 3,635-acre Wingate East Mine near Duette and the 24,509-acre Pine Level/Keys Tract in southeastern Manatee County.
Overall, Mosaic and CF Industries seek federal permits for new and expanded mining on some 42,000 acres in Manatee, Hillsborough, Hardee, De Soto and Polk counties.
The two companies paid the consulting firm CH2M HILL to conduct the study, though the Corps came up with the conclusions. But that raises suspicions about whether the consultants took a tough and critical look at all the evidence on impacts and mitigation.
Central Florida phosphate deposits typically can be found 15 to 50 feet below the surface. Draglines rip off the top layers of earth to reach the phosphate rock. Clay settling ponds are left behind once a tract has been mined. That's truly "impactive."
Environmentalists denounced the Corps report as too limited in scope, failing to evaluate all the impacts of phosphate mining -- including the increase in radiation levels and subsequent effect on human health. Ecosystem experts also assert wetlands reclamation projects fail to replicate natural functionality.
But the Corps contends mitigation will restore wetlands and habitats destroyed by mining, going so far as to highlight the advanced reclamation practices employed by phosphate companies as successful while also accentuating the economic benefits from mining.
The economic impact is indeed significant -- an additional 6,340 jobs and $29 billion in value pumped into the region's economy, according to study projections. Such big numbers tend to trump environmental considerations, even the potential harm to our water supply and downriver ecosystems.
In an interview with Herald reporter Sara Kennedy, Fellows certainly underlined that point by indicating the study concluded the cumulative economic impacts of not permitting mining would be substantial over the coming years.
Another statement clearly points out that federal approval is almost certain. "We'll work with the applicant to avoid and minimize impacted acreage," Fellows stated. "The figures probably will come down."
The public commenting period hasn't even closed, and all signs indicate objections will be overridden.
Mosaic representatives present a rosy view of mining and mitigation, too.
Dee Allen, mine permitting manager for Mosaic, told the Herald:
"While the study generally finds phosphate mining's impacts are minor, in a few areas it finds that greater impacts would occur without mitigation. ... Good mitigation is the basis for continued mining. It's about the excellence and importance of restoration. That's the basis of continuing to mine."
While we're skeptical about ecosystem restoration, we're also realists when it comes to the substantial economic benefits of mining -- especially for a region still hungry for jobs. In addition, Florida produces roughly 75 percent of the country's supply of phosphate fertilizer and around 25 percent of the global supply.
While this mining is essential, we can only hope that mitigation techniques continue to advance, and restored wetlands and other ecosystems do indeed regain their former functionality some time in the future.
At the same time, we cannot help but think this study is a result of simply going through the motions to satisfy requirements under the federal Clean Water Act.
The public review period about the study continues through June 3. 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read the AEIS, visit Manatee County's Central Library for a hard copy or go online to www.phosphateaeis.org/doc_final_aeis.html