News And Updates
Published By: NYTimes
Officials of Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota Counties along with the regional water authority, worry that the mines, in the central region of Florida, will decrease the quantity and quality of water in the Peace River, a major contributor to the counties’ water supplies.
The counties point to the river’s importance to Charlotte Harbor, an estuary fed by the Peace River.
“Our whole local economy is driven by the harbor,” said Janette Knowlton, a lawyer for Charlotte County.
Little known outside Florida, phosphate mining has been a major contributor to the regional economy since the 1930s, accounting for 75 percent of phosphate used in the United States, mostly in fertilizer.
Two large companies, Mosaic Fertilizer and CF Industry Holdings, operate most of the open pit phosphate mines in Hardee and Polk Counties. At the mines, cranes dig a mixture of phosphate, sand and clay that is generally below 15 to 30 feet of topsoil and sand. The material is dumped into a nearby pit and blasted with high pressure water to create a slurry that is pumped through pipes to a plant for final separation of the phosphate. The leftover clay-water mixture is dumped into other pits that become ponds. Today, the ponds dot the landscape. The sand is used to help fill the pits after mining.
The mines pump on average more than 100,000 gallons of water a minute, according to the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research, an industry-financed organization.
The Environmental Protection Department regulates the mines. The counties say that state officials have granted too many mine permits and that many permits do not meet federal standards.
Mining companies have been allowed to destroy streams and wetlands, according to the counties, and areas they have reclaimed remain damaged and scarred.
“We found out through consultants that none of the permits complied with the environmental regulations on the books,” the natural resources planner for Charlotte County, Bill Byle, said. “We thought all these agencies were protecting us.”
A study by the Environmental Protection Department found that the forestland in the Peace River Basin had declined, to 17 percent from 60 percent in 1940. Wetlands declined to 16 percent from 25 percent.
“Obviously, something isn’t working,” Ms. Knowlton said. “The regulations aren’t tight enough or something went wrong with the procedures.”
The three counties and the water authority have spent $12 million and days in court in an effort to block the opening by Mosaic of a 20,675-acre mine near Ona, to impose stricter environmental practices at other sites and to track those seeking permits.
“We want to go into this knowing what we will have when they are all done, a healthy, vibrant estuary and clean drinking-water supply,” a Charlotte County commissioner, Adam Cummings, said.
Officials of the Environmental Protection Department defended their permits and oversight of the phosphate mines.
“Our job to treat everyone fairly,” Janet G. Llewellyn, director of water resource management, said. “We’re not defending the industry. We’re trying to equitably and scientifically apply the rules.”
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Arguing that the State Environmental Protection Department is far too lax in regulating open-pit phosphate mines, three Gulf Coast counties are spending millions of dollars in an effort to keep the mines from further expansion in a major watershed.
In June, the department gave Mosaic a permit for the first parcel, 4,178 acres, for the mine near Ona in western Hardee County. The three Gulf Coast counties persuaded the department to require stricter environmental practices like leaving wetlands intact.
“We were very careful in Ona to make the company stay out of high quality streams and wetlands,” the director of the Bureau of Mine Reclamation, Richard W. Cantrell, said.
“If you can mine it, reclaim it and put it back in such a nice form, why is there opposition against it?” Dee Allen, head of permits and reclamation for Mosaic, asked.
The counties are appealing the permit on grounds that include the fact the department did not consider its own study of the overall effects of mining and other activities on the Peace River watershed. The department secretary, Michael W. Sole, said through a spokeswoman that the study was not relevant to its decision.