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07/28/2008

District scrutinizes Mosaic's mega water use

Published By: Charlotte Sun

Officials seek more info about quantities, impacts

Mosaic Fertilizer, the world's largest phosphate mining company, is applying to renew a mega water use permit that actually cuts back the amount the company would be allowed to pump by some 23 million gallons of water per day.

Despite that reduction, approval won't come easy.

That's because Mosaic still would be permitted to extract 76 million gallons per day, down from its current permit for 99 mgd.

And the Southwest Florida Water Management District is scrutinizing the application to determine whether Mosaic has provided "reasonable assurances" that its use of the water isn't wasteful and won't adversely affect downstream users and the environment.

The water would be withdrawn from more than 250 wells into the Intermediate and Floridan aquifers in five counties where Mosaic has operations. They include Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, Manatee and DeSoto.

Mosaic's withdrawals would amount to about triple the quantity of water the Peace River/Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority delivers to 200,000 customers in its four-county region each day.

It's enough water to refill the authority's 600 million gallon reservoir almost once a week.

Water district regulators sent Mosaic a 46-page letter a week ago raising questions on no fewer than 86 separate water-use concerns.

It is the second time the district has sent Mosaic such a list of questions, known as a Request for Additional Information in the permitting process, since the company first applied for the permit in 2006.

The regulators ask Mosaic to conduct feasibility studies to determine if the company could treat municipal wastewater or even its own contaminated process water and re-use it, instead of pumping a portion of those quantities out of the aquifers.

The regulators also want Mosaic to provide more specific information to determine how much its withdrawals from wells and excavations of pits will draw down the water table. That process often causes wetlands to go dry.

"We've seen some concerns with their dewatering in the past," said Brian Starford, director of the district's Bartow water-use regulation department. "I think our staff has done a really good job in asking the questions we need to ask Mosaic to address those issues."

Mosaic was unfazed by the extensive list of questions. The company has been meeting with district permit specialists every month or two since Mosaic first applied for the permit in 2006, pointed out Santino Provenzano, Mosaic environmental superintendent.

"It's a big permit, it covers a lot of grounds and a lot of water," he said. "So we as a company understand that the district needs to go through a thorough permit review process."

Kaley Miller, public affairs specialist for Mosaic, emphasized the fact that Mosaic is reducing its permitted water quantity.

"This is a really important concept because the Integrated-WUP represents a significant reduction from Mosaic's currently permitted quantities," she said. "From looking at phosphate's history, you know that Mosaic and its predecessors have been consistently reducing groundwater useage."

Historic proportions

Mosaic was formed by the merger of two phosphate mining giants, IMC Agrico and Cargill Fertilizer, in 2005. At that time, IMC held what was then called the Mega-Water Use Permit (Mega-WUP) to pump more than 50 mgd. Cargill also had a batch of permits for another 50 mgd.

Mosaic is now applying to combine those permits into one. The move comes after mines in Polk County have been playing out and the company is moving south in Hardee County.

The fact that Mosaic is able to reduce its permitted quantity from 99 mgd to 76 mgd is due to a combination of factors, Provenzano said. The company has implemented conservation measures, he said.

Also, the merger of IMC and Cargill allows the company to close down some wells that were no longer needed, he said.

No new big "production wells" are proposed for Hardee County in the next 10 years, even though Mosaic plans to open at least two big new mines totaling 30,000 acres, Starford said. Those mines are Ona and South Fort Meade.

The water for the ditches, spray jets and slurry pipelines for those mines could be supplied by existing Hardee wells or any other wells encompassed by the permit. Mosaic has wells in Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

But the overall reduction in pumping has already allowed the Floridan Aquifer, which was drawn down some 45 feet in the 1950s, to recover to a degree, Provenzano said.

In the 1950s, the industry consumed nearly 400 million gallons a day. Fresh water was pumped out of the ground, used to slurry soil and ore to a plant, and then discharged back into area streams and rivers.

In the 1970s, after the passage of the Clean Water Act, the phosphate industry began recirculating water. That dropped pumping to about 150 mgd.

At least one other phosphate company is consuming water in the Peace River watershed. CF Industries recently was granted a renewed permit for its operations.

Differing philosophies

Mosaic, in its response to the district's first request for additional information, stated: "This consolidated permit is for a reduced total quantity at the existing permitted withdrawal locations, therefore there are no new adverse impacts to any existing legal users to assess."

But district regulators Joseph Oros and Mark Hurst pointed out "quantity is not the only factor considered when assessing adverse impacts; location of where the quantity is being withdrawn is just as important."

The staffers called for Mosaic to mark on maps the location of the Peace River, its tributaries, wetlands, lakes, contamination sites and areas where the district has set minimum flows and levels.

The staffers also want to know the location of all public and private wells near Mosaic's boundaries, so impacts can be mathematically simulated.

In one question, the district asks why Mosaic uses more water at its fertilizer chemical plants during extra-heavy rainfall years compared to average years.

Provenzano provided the answer: Mosaic uses millions of gallons per day to blend with polluted chemical-process water that must be discharged when storage ponds get full, he said.

But, he added, the mining company's need for water is obviously greater during dry spells than wet periods.

The regulators also ask Mosaic why it uses well water to fill up clay-settling areas, which are impoundment sites for waste clay slimes.

The district staffers also remind Mosaic that the district's philosophy for protecting wetlands and streams is to make sure the mining doesn't draw down the water table.

But Mosaic's environmental management plan calls for protecting those resources primarily by monitoring the vegetation and wildlife. If it declines, then Mosaic would implement mitigation.

Oros and Hurst, in their letter, state that Mosaic's environmental protection plan fails to provide the required assurances that wetlands won't be degraded.

But Provenzano said the crux of the dispute is over "trigger levels." Mosaic is trying to reach agreement with the district about what level of ecosystem degradation would trigger a remedial action.

"In the environmental management plan, instead of one universal protection measure, we're saying we're going to have a toolbox with multiple methods, and we're going to work with the district very closely to determine what's important," he said.

E-mail: gmartin@sun-herald.com

By GREG MARTIN

Staff Writer

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