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Judge again refuses to void mining approval

MANATEE — A judge again has rebuffed environmentalists’ efforts to block Mosaic Fertilizer from expanding its Four Corners phosphate mine, but opponents said Monday they plan to continue their legal fight.

In an order issued last week, Manatee County Circuit Judge Edward Nicholas declined to re-consider his earlier refusal to review Manatee County’s approvals of the expansion. In doing so, he again rejected mining opponents’ arguments that the county’s decision-making process was tainted.

“It was not surprising,” said Monica Reimer, a Tallahassee attorney with EarthJustice who is representing those fighting Mosaic’s plans to mine the 2,048-acre Altman Tract in northeastern Manatee.

She said opponents plan to ask a state appeals court to take up the case and also will continue fighting the proposed expansion in federal court.

Deputy County Attorney Jim Minix said the county was “pleased with the judge’s decision” and is preparing for an appeal. Mosaic spokesman Russell Schweiss said the company also was “pleased with the ruling” and hoped it would end the legal case.

“It’s unfortunate that taxpayer dollars continue to be wasted on frivolous motions like these when facts and science have proven no merit to the challenges,” he said.

Nicholas’ Jan. 25 decision was the latest salvo in the battle over Altman.

It began in September 2008, when county commissioners denied Mosaic’s request for approval to mine Altman because of wetlands concerns. Mosaic quickly appealed and threatened to file a $618 million property-loss claim, leading to a negotiated settlement in which the county agreed to reconsider.

With newly elected commissioners Larry Bustle and John Chappie providing the swing votes, the county approved the expansion in a series of votes in January and February 2009.

Mining opponents said the approvals were tainted for several reasons, including:

n The county lacked jurisdiction because Mosaic had appealed the denial to circuit court.

n Commissioners violated their own procedures for reconsidering an earlier decision.

n Opponents were prevented from meeting with commissioners, but Bustle and Chappie met with Mosaic officials and toured the company’s mines before voting for approval.

Mining opponents said those actions violated their right to due process, but Nicholas disagreed in November. Opponents then asked Nicholas for a rehearing to reconsider, which he rejected last week.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.