Mosaic, feds reach $2B settlement in waste case

MANATEE -- Fertilizer maker Mosaic Co. will put up almost $2 billion to settle a federal lawsuit over leaks and improper handling of hazardous waste at six of its Florida and Louisiana production plants.

Announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Thursday, the settlement ends 12 years of haggling over how an estimated 30 million tons of waste will be treated, disposed of and stored. The settlement must still be finalized by federal district courts in the two states.

Under the terms of the settlement, Mosaic does not admit to wrongdoing.

Minnesota-based Mosaic has operated the processing facilities since 2004, when the company was created through a merger of Cargill Crop Nutrition and IMC Global. The facilities process phosphate rock extracted from surface mines, two of which are in Manatee County. Neither of those mines are affected by the settlement.

Waste from the manufacturing process is typically piled in "stacks" that can reach 500 feet in height and cover more than 600 acres. They are some of the largest piles of hazardous industrial waste in the United States.

"Mining and mineral processing facilities generate more toxic and hazardous waste than any other industrial sector," said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, in a press release. "Reducing environmental impacts from large fertilizer manufacturers operations is a national priority for EPA, as part of our commitment to pursuing cases that have the biggest impact on protecting public health."

According to consent decrees filed with the courts,

EPA inspectors found Mosaic allowed leaks of acid byproducts from its manufacturing process to mix with other wastewaters used to make phosphorous-based fertilizers. The EPA alleged this and other findings concerning the handling of waste at Mosaic plants violated federal law. The allegations apply to four Florida plants and two in Louisiana.

Mosaic's mining operation in Manatee County does not include processing. Phosphate dug out of its 7,000-acre Wingate mine in Duette is shipped to the company's processing plant in New Wales in Polk County. Another 11,000 acres in Manatee County are part of Mosaic's larger Four Corners mine.

To settle the claim, Mosaic will pay $630 million into a trust fund that will be used to eventually close and treat wastewater at its Bartow, New Wales and Riverview plants in Florida and a fourth plant in Louisiana. The fund principal will be invested until it grows to $1.8 billion.

The company will also spend $170 million to change its waste management methods. It will pay fines totaling $8 million and will spend $2.2 million on two local environmental projects.

"We are pleased to be bringing this matter to a close," said Mosaic CEO Joc O'Rourke in a statement. "Mosaic is committed to meaningful environmental stewardship at all of our facilities, and we take our responsibility to be good corporate citizens -- now and for the decades ahead -- very seriously."

Mosaic has already completed some cleanup and waste management projects ordered by the EPA, according to court documents. The EPA is requiring the company to install protective barriers in its stacks and storage ponds to ensure wastewater stored inside does not leak. Mosaic must also verify the structural stability of its stacks and ponds. Mosaic plans to increase the size of mining operations at Wingate. It added more than 200 acres when it purchased a parcel of farmland this summer. The company plans to apply for permits this year or in 2016 to begin mining another 4,000 acres at Wingate.

Manatee County suffered one of the nation's most expensive gypsum stack failures in 2011 when the liner of a stack near Port Manatee ruptured, spilling about 170 million gallons of phosphate-tainted water into nearby Bishop Harbor. The state has spent about $142 million cleaning the spill. The stack was not owned by Mosaic.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.