News And Updates
Published By: Sun Herald
By NEIL HUGHES
CHARLOTTE COUNTY -- Members of the County Commission hope they set in motion the end to lengthy, expensive phosphate litigation Tuesday in approving a compromise with Mosaic Fertilizer.
The commission approved the fertilizer compact in a 4-1 vote, but the terms of the agreement require that a total of four governing bodies sign on. Lee and Sarasota counties, as well as the Peace River/Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, have yet to vote on the settlement.
"Our job is not to stop mining, and I think sometimes people get confused about that," said Commissioner Tom Moore of the majority opinion. "Mosaic has the right to mine and our country needs the phosphate."
The five-hour meeting featured presentations from Charlotte County's special phosphate attorney Ed de la Parte; Doug Manson, attorney with the water authority; and Richard L. Mack, senior vice president and general counsel for Mosaic.
All three parties highlighted what they called improvements to the settlement that had been made over weeks of talks.
"I don't think there's an argument that the compact has been upgraded," Mack said.
Supporters hope the agreement would enact stronger environmental protections for the Peace River basin and Charlotte Harbor. In exchange, Charlotte County would not be able to officially dispute any of the company's existing permitted mines over the agreement's 15-year term.
In voting for the agreement, Commissioner Tom D'Aprile said with three other boards set to review the proposal, he's open to input.
"If there are any suggestions from the other counties that would improve this, I am willing to listen," D'Aprile said.
Though the contract requires all parties to approve it, the terms could change if Mosaic agreed to accept, say, three out of four.
Sarasota is set to discuss the compat on Nov. 27, the water authority will handle it Dec. 5, and Lee County is expected to hold a meeting in December or January.
The phosphate mining debate has been a hotly contested issue in Charlotte County for years. The county is currently engaged in litigation with Mosaic.
Numerous members of the public took the opportunity Tuesday to speak out to the commission on the matter, and the response was overwhelmingly against the settlement. Public comment was allowed after the expert presentations concluded.
For the most part, the message to the County Commission was "slow down." Environmental advocates pleaded with the commissioners to put some more thought and time into the agreement rather than jump into what they felt was a hasty compromise.
"We need to know what the impacts will be before we give up our rights to challenge them, and the right to litigate is what got Mosaic here to the table in the first place," said Sue Reske, chairperson of the Greater Charlotte Harbor Sierra Club.
Punta Gorda resident and Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee member Clarke Keller said the county's right to threaten litigation with Mosaic is an important tool.
"We've got a huge body of science that can support our contentions," Keller said. "They don't want to go to court with us."
During closing comments, Chairman Dick Loftus, who supported the agreement, compared it to the U.S. Constitution: a document that was forged through compromise after intelligent conversation with all parties.
Commissioner Adam Cummings, the lone dissenting vote, took issue with Loftus' analogy.
"If we're comparing this to the Constitution, this ain't it," Cummings said.
A longtime critic of the phosphate industry, Cummings took the opportunity in stating his dissenting vote to get the last word in.
"All those against," Loftus called.
"Aye," Cummings said, "and the overwhelming majority of citizens you are supposed to represent," referencing the numerous people who spoke Tuesday.
Commissioner Tricia Duffy, who was Charlotte County's representative in the independent negotiations with Mosaic, the counties and the water authority, said achieving Tuesday's result was no easy task.
"All of us probably wrestled with this decision," she said of herself and her fellow commissioners.