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02/06/2008

Commission considering fate of Manatee phosphate-mining proposal

Published By: bradenton.com

By NICHOLAS AZZARA nazzara@bradenton.com

Manatee County officials today could determine the future of a huge expanse of land in northeast Manatee and the hundreds of millions of dollars worth in minerals that lie beneath.

For years a decision has been delayed on the controversial Altman tract, a 2,000-acre pocket in one of the far reaches of the county. Environmental concerns over nearly 400 acres of virgin wetland there have prevented Mosaic Fertilizer winning rights to dig the valuable phosphate 50 feet under the surface.

The mining giant presented an enticing plan to county commissioners today, promising to restore whatever wetlands are lost or damaged in the mining process, along with offering a $1 million park and fire station to service rural Duette.

The board also heard a compelling argument from county staffers who urged a denial on the grounds that Mosaic could impact a nearby water supply and it would tear up too much wetland to be replaced.

Mosaic contends that it has already scaled back its plans significantly and that its plan meets county codes that allow for mineral mining. They added that mining operations in the county will help the local economy and export operations at Port Manatee. "There are 15 million tons of recoverable phosphate on the Altman tract. The plan we have developed means we are going to lose almost 7 million tons," said Dee Allen, Mosaic's permitting and reclamations superintendent. "Forty percent of the reserve would be left in the ground because of this preservation. That's a lot. I'm sure if, in your investments, you lost 40 percent of them, you would think that's a lot as well."

Both Mosiac and the county hosted scientists who argued the merits of replacing wetlands over time, a process called reclamation. The county's experts said reclaimed wetlands simply aren't as valuable to the ecology as natural wetlands.

"The thing that you really need to start focusing on is the fact that mining may leave a very, very large void in areas that are mined because the water can't get back into those and be held like it did in a normal condition," said Kevin Erwin, a certified senior ecologist. "That's extremely significant."

At the heart of the matter is a brief statement in the county's massive comprehensive plan that prevents wetlands from being impacted unless there's a significant benefit to the public. Mosaic argued that they'd met and exceeded whatever is required by the county to meet that test.

Commissioners this afternoon will have to determine whether Mosaic's plan is in the best interest of the public. A vote could come later today.

The discussion on the Altman tract is taking place now in the first-floor chambers of Manatee County Administrative Center, 1112 Manatee Ave. W.

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