News And Updates
Published By: HeraldTribune.com
MANATEE COUNTY - Fearing the county could lose a $617.8 million lawsuit, the Manatee County Commission voted Thursday to reverse a previous decision and approve an expansion of Mosaic Fertilizer's phosphate mine in Duette.
The decision advances plans by Mosaic, which still needs a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to expand its Four Corners Mine to a 2,048-acre site commonly called the Altman Tract.
County attorneys expressed no confidence that the county could prevail in a lawsuit, an opinion that swayed most commissioners.
Yet about two dozen environmentalists and concerned residents vehemently urged the commission to defend the previous position -- even if it had to do so in court.
They challenged Mosaic's claim that it can mine 400 acres of high-quality wetlands on the Altman Tract and then restore them. The wetlands lie in a basin feeding the Peace River, which provides drinking water for Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota counties.
Commissioners Larry Bustle and John Chappie cast the pivotal votes in favor of the mine expansion.
In an August election, Bustle replaced incumbent Amy Stein and Chappie replaced incumbent Jane von Hahmann on the commission. Weeks after that election, but before Bustle and Chappie took office, Stein and von Hahmann helped form a 4-3 majority on the council that denied the mining expansion.
On Thursday, Bustle, Chappie and commissioners Gwen Brown, Carol Whitmore and Donna Hayes overturned the previous decision in a 5-2 vote. Commissioners Ron Getman and Joe McClash again voted against the mine expansion.
Chappie said he believed Mosaic, one of the world's largest phosphate companies, with large mining operations across Florida, had a reasonable expectation that it could mine the property. Several years ago, the county gave Mosaic's predecessor, IMC-Agrico, the Altman Tract in exchange for land the mining company owned within the watershed of the county's reservoir.
"I don't think there was a lot of choice," Chappie said of his decision.
Bustle said he believes Mosaic can successfully restore wetlands and has done so elsewhere. "The facts are strong enough to overcome my doubts," he said.
Bustle agreed with county attorneys that Mosaic most likely would have prevailed in court. "I think we would have been a bankrupt county at the end of the trial," he said.
The commissioners wrestled with a provision in the Comprehensive Plan that bans mining in wetlands unless there are no other practical uses for the property or the county finds "an overriding public benefit."
"I do see an overriding public benefit," Hayes said, noting that phosphate ore is used in fertilizer. "... If we're going to eat, we need phosphate in this country."
Several people in the crowd booed her.
McClash saw no "overriding public benefit" and said keeping agricultural zoning on the tract would not have denied Mosaic reasonable use of the land. He called the rezoning for a mine "zoning for dollars."
After the county denied Mosaic's proposal in September, the company filed a lawsuit seeking $618 million in damages, the amount it claims to be the value of the phosphate it intended to sell. Last month, Mosaic agreed to drop the lawsuit if the commission reversed its decision.
The Federation of Manatee County Community Associations, the League of Women Voters and several environmental groups strongly urged the commission to defend the denial in court.
"A 'yes' vote will amount to selling a rezoning decision," Cris Costello of the National Sierra Club told commissioners.
Peggy Simone, a former state legislator, insisted that mined lands cannot be restored to their natural state. "If Mother Nature had a face and eyes, she would cry."
Mosaic's attorneys and consultants, however, argued that environmentalists cannot present credible evidence that wetlands restoration does not work. They said that, in legal challenges, administrative law judges have repeatedly sided with Mosaic's expert witnesses.
In exchange for the county's approval, Mosaic again agreed to build a 7,000-square-foot station for the Duette Fire District and a park for Duette residents with baseball and soccer fields, picnic areas and a 19-acre lake with a boat ramp. It also agreed to avoid mining in more than 500 acres of marsh and to put 552 acres into conservation.
On Thursday, Mosaic added another pledge: $75,000 toward a county environmental education enter at the Rye Preserve that it will help staff with volunteers.
It also agreed to refrain from mining the separate 597-acre Texaco Tract until it has convinced the county that it is successfully restoring the Altman wetlands. Yet Glenn Compton of the Sarasota environmental group ManaSota-88 said the latter promise only served as "a temporary stay of execution" for the Texaco Tract.