News And Updates
Published By: Sun-Herald
Mosaic denies involvement, but would be amendment's biggest beneficiary
Charlotte County was "blindsided" by a legislative maneuver that could limit mining appeals because it couldn't afford to pay attention, Commissioner Adam Cummings said.
"We're here trying to save money and weren't keeping track," he said.
Cummings was referring to an "11th-hour" amendment tacked onto Senate Bill 1294 on the legislative session's last day.
The bill includes $60 million in severance tax hikes on phosphate companies, but the amendment grants any party in a mining-permit challenge a summary hearing within 90 days.
Right now, a summary hearing can be attained only by mutual consent of all parties.
Charlotte County's phosphate counsel, Orlando attorney Ed de la Parte, said SB 1294 was a complex bill with dozens of DEP-related authorizations -- a perfect place to hide a late rider.
"It went through the complete process without controversy, but subsequent amendments were made, brought before the Legislature, and passed on consent," he said.
De la Parte said he was assured by Mosaic Vice President for Government Affairs Mark Kaplan, chief of staff under former Gov. Jeb Bush, that the company had no legislative initiatives.
True enough. The amendment was submitted by a lobbyist working for CF Industries, Inc.
But CFI is a cooperative of Midwest farmers and agricultural companies with little need for such a measure, de la Parte said.
"I'm suspicious," he said, noting an abbreviated hearing process would, however, benefit Mosaic, which has a permit pending for its South Fort Meade mine.
"The only beneficiary, the only one with a motive, is Mosaic," Cummings said.
While local governments pondered a proposed pact with Mosaic, Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton said, "They went to Tallahassee and got the rules weakened."
Mosaic spokesperson Kaley Miller denied the company orchestrated the amendment submission.
"This is not language that Mosaic proposed, but it is something we are supportive of," she said.
De la Parte said when he spoke with CFI officials, they "would not confirm or deny" their solo involvement in the amendment.
CFI Senior Community Affairs Specialist Stefan Katzaras deferred comment to their lobbyist, attorney Frank Matthews of the Hopping Green & Sams law firm.
Matthews, whose firm is listed as CFI and Mosaic lobbyists in the state Legislature's Lobbyist Directory, said he lobbied for CFI, not Mosaic.
But he said all state phosphate companies will benefit from the amendment.
"There are only three left; any one of them may be the beneficiary," he said. "The real beneficiary is the process itself."
Matthews said the former process was inefficient and costly.
"In the past," Mosaic's Miller agreed, "cases were allowed to go on indefinitely, largely at taxpayers' expense, costing taxpayers millions in legal fees.
"This injects a time frame to the proceedings," she continued. "It allows both sides to get to the merits of the permit faster."
But time is needed to challenge permits for mines that can "be 20,000 acres with complex hydrology, water and environmental ramifications," de la Parte said.
He said it has "typically taken eight, 10 months to a year to prepare for a hearing that can be four to eight weeks long."
"I disagree," Matthews said. "If you are prepared to challenge an agency action, you must have already determined there is a basis to challenge. I would have hoped you have done sufficient preparation."
Thaxton said the amendment could be a dangerous precedent.
"That day in court is pretty much the only leverage local governments have to protect their interests," Thaxton said. "If we give up the right to go to court, we've given up the game."
He gets angry when Mosaic and others accuse local governments of frittering away money in legal fees to protect the environment.
If the state upheld its laws and enacted stronger protections, Thaxton said, local governments wouldn't have to do it for them.
"If those rules had been in effect all along," he said, "virtually all mine challenges wouldn't have happened and we wouldn't be faced with this (litigious) environment."