News And Updates
Published By: HeraldTribune.com
Manatee commissioners vote in favor of order to let Mosaic mine Altman Tract
By CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL
MANATEE COUNTY — Fearful of facing a $400 million lawsuit from mining behemoth Mosaic Inc., county commissioners on Monday voted to draw up a development order for a 2,048-acre mine expansion in northeast Manatee.
The move does not mean the phosphate mining project is approved, but it is a strong indicator that the board will give it final approval in June.
But, should that happen, the county could instead face a lawsuit from local environmental group Mana-Sota-88, which has campaigned for years against the project. Mining the site known as the Altman Tract would mean the destruction of almost 400 acres of high-quality wetlands.
The tract lies in the Peace River Basin, part of the headwaters of the Peace River, one of the region's main sources of drinking water.
Environmentalists argued in the hearing that mining phosphate ore, which is used as an ingredient in fertilizer, could harm water quality in the Peace River and reduce water flow.
"The Altman mine is to occur in the single most important piece of the Horse Creek Basin, its headwaters," said Randy Lasalle, a member of the Sierra Club in Charlotte County. "Every impact to the headwaters affects everyone and everything downstream."
Charlotte County, which gets drinking water from the Peace River, spent about $12 million and eight years fighting the project. But with Mosaic having already obtained permits from the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some Manatee commissioners said they were not confident that denying the application would survive a legal challenge.
Mosaic officials value the amount of phosphate underneath the soil at about $400 million. The figure is roughly equivalent to two years' worth of property taxes in Manatee County.
"They're not going to give up easily on $400 million, and that's why the board anticipates litigation," said Ed Hunzeker, county administrator.
The county's decision angered opponents of the mine, who said the commissioners had let down the public.
"I don't like to see scare tactics become the deciding factor," said Glenn Compton, president of ManaSota-88. "The issue is not over yet but I'm very concerned that the commission is going to make a decision based on the threat of litigation."
Approval of the Altman Tract would likely set a precedent for future mining projects, said county environmental staff, who recommended commissioners deny Mosaic a permit.
The company has only mined about 17,000 of the 45,000 acres that it owns in Manatee County. Much of that land is in rural and environmentally-sensitive areas.
County rules prevent or limit the destruction of wetlands except where there is an overriding public benefit. In the last four years, the county has allowed only 25 acres of wetlands to be developed. Most were low-quality wetlands.
The wetlands that Mosaic wants to mine are mostly of high quality. Many of them are connected to the site's central marsh system, which feeds into Horseshoe Creek, part of the headwaters of the Peace River.
The tract is also home to several rare and listed species, including gopher tortoises, eastern indigo snakes and an eagle's nest.
Representatives of Mosaic argued that the company's donation of a new fire station and a county park for the nearby community of Duette qualified the project as providing a public benefit. Although the county has yet to give final approval, members of the Duette Fire Department saw Monday's decision as a sign that they would get their new fire station.
The fire department, which only became a taxing district just last year, is still staffed by volunteers and operates out of a pole barn. Its annual budget is less than $150,000.
"The only other option to us to put in a facility was to put the burden on Duette taxpayers," said Jim Leonard, Duette's fire chief.