DUETTE -- The Mosaic Co. is the biggest player in an industry with a reputation for polluting and scarring the land. While company officials acknowledge the phosphate mining legacy, they say they are also trying to redefine that environmental legacy.
Given what mining has left behind, burnishing a questionable legacy may be the toughest thing the company hopes to do.
The first century of phosphate mining in Florida left vast open mining pits on rural lands. Concentrated hazardous waste created in processing phosphate into agricultural fertilizers could remain a threat to the health of people and the environment for hundreds or thousands of years.
Since becoming Florida's largest phosphate miner and processor 10 years ago, Mosaic made an effort to project a different image. It puts millions of dollars annually into restoring thousands of acres of old mining lands as close as possible to their natural state, as required by the state since 1975. The company gives money to local causes, including sponsoring facilities at the Manatee County Fair and giving money to Bradenton's Riverwalk and South Florida Museum. It even donates land to county and city parks departments.
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The efforts have not made the company untouchable and have not stemmed complaints from environmentalists.
In September, Mosaic agreed to pay almost $2 billion to settle a federal lawsuit over leaks and improper handling of hazardous waste at eight of its Florida and Louisiana production plants. The settlement ends 12 years of haggling over how an estimated 30 million tons of waste will be treated.
Even as the settlement was taking place, Manatee County was becoming part of the phosphate industry's new mining epicenter in Florida.
Polk County, once a major phosphate producer, no longer hosts any active Mosaic mining sites.
Next door in Hillsborough County, Mosaic operates just one mining site.
Mines in Manatee, DeSoto and Hardee counties are expected to produce the bulk of its phosphate ore for the next five to seven decades.
Eventually, those lands could be sold for agricultural or other private uses, or donated to the state or counties as park land.
At best, the phosphate industry has a tarnished environmental record during most of the 132 years it has operated in Florida. Processing operations have left millions of tons of concentrated, slightly radioactive waste sitting on the land.
Elsewhere in Florida, old phosphate mining sites were left open for decades as scars in the landscape.
Mosaic has sought to do better following a state law passed in 1975. It reclaims its mining lands by returning them to a natural state through extensive land forming and plant and wildlife management. It has even done some reclamation of lands mined by other companies it has purchased. One of its marquee reclamation projects is Streamsong Resort, a golf and spa resort complex Mosaic built on the remnants of a former phosphate mine near Bartow.
When Mosaic came to Florida, it entered an industry under regulatory pressure for decades concerning its environmental record. In early 2004, Minnesota-based Cargill merged its crop nutrition business with phosphate producer IMC Global. That merged company became Mosaic by year's end.
Through several mergers, Mosaic inherited millions of tons of waste material and produces more each year through its operations. Called phosphogypsum, the waste is a byproduct of the industry's "benefication" process, which converts phosphate rock into a usable fertilizer component. It produces slurry of minerals and water that is dried and stored in gigantic piles called gypsum stacks.
Covering acres and standing more than 100 feet high in many cases, Florida's stacks, according to a Florida Institute of Phosphate Research estimate, contain more than 900 million tons of slightly radioactive, nutrient-laced material known as phosphogypsum, which will have to be monitored for centuries to come.
Manatee County has its share of stacks and issues with phosphogypsum at the former Piney Point Phosphates facility in rural Palmetto abandoned by the Mulberry Corp. In 2011, the lining on one of those stacks ruptured, pouring an estimated 170 million gallons of water-loaded phosphate processing waste into Bishop Harbor.
Mosaic has not added to the phosphogypsum burden locally: All phosphate concentrates plans and related waste storage facilities are outside the county. Mosaic and other companies in the industry have proposed using the waste material as cover for landfills and for use in building road beds. Environmental groups have successfully opposed this, citing the potential risk of spreading the radioactive compounds in phosphogypsum throughout human and natural environments. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forbids phosphogypsum's use for any purpose.
Glenn Compton, chairman of Nokomis environmental group ManaSota-88, said the industry has yet to come up with a better way to dispose of its waste.
"Phosphate companies have had over 50 years to figure out a way to dispose of the radioactive gypsum wastes in an acceptable manner, they have yet to do so," the group writes on its website.
Giving the land back
When it comes to restoring land after mining, some Mosaic employees talk more like the environmentalists who oppose their industry than they do employees of a multinational fertilizer company.
Faced with the poor image the industry has earned, Mosaic has taken an exacting approach to restoring or "reclaiming" land it mines. The company established a reclamation program that goes well beyond simply filling mine cuts with dirt and throwing down grass seed.
When the company opens new mines, it sets top soil and other layers of earth aside in separate piles to later be returned to mine cuts in the order they were removed.
Near the Four Corners Mine, Mosaic is about a dozen years into reclaiming a big chunk of former mine land it has dubbed the 500-acre wetland. Reclamation began in the early 2000s. Today, the land's diverse ecology includes three lakes, prairie areas and forested uplands. Another 150 acres of reclaimed Florida scrub land surrounds much of the wetland. Protected gopher tortoises found on the company's mining lands have been moved to this site. The area has attracted many birders who want to see the wildlife there, tso he company built an observation platform overlooking the wetland.
Grant Lykins, a Mosaic reclamation ecologist who works Four Corners and Wingate reclamation sites, said the work done at the 500-acre wetland will be used as a template for future operations. Some reclamation was done at the mine by Mosaic's predecessor, Nu-Gulf. Mosaic has done some as well, near the Winding Creek subdivision to the south of the mine.
What the company learns at the 500-acre wetland will shape what Wingate and Wingate East look like one day.
"It was sort of a project to show what we could do with a wetland," Lykins said.
Already alive with tall fir trees, grasses and populations of birds and small mammals, the wetland will likely remain under Mosaic's care until mining ceases at Four Corners. At that point, Lykins said, the restoration will be considered complete. The land could be turned over to the county or state as a park, or sold to a private party for agricultural use or development.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.