News And Updates
Published By: Charlotte Sun
Litigation proliferates over phosphate mining
To strip mine phosphate in Central Florida these days, Mosaic Fertilizer needs lots of land, digging machines and, apparently, lawyers.
With representation from three law firms based in Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee, Mosaic is defending itself against a spate of lawsuits and permit challenges under way simultaneously in four counties.
Friday, Mosaic took Charlotte County Attorney Janette Knowlton to court. The company filed a suit seeking a judge's order to force Knowlton to release transcripts of secret meetings between the Charlotte County Commission and its legal team.
Knowlton's attorney, Assistant County Attorney Aleksandr Boksner, argued the transcripts are exempt from Florida's public records laws because they are attorney-client discussions.
Circuit Judge Keith Kyle agreed to Mosaic's request that he review the transcripts and set another hearing before deciding whether to dismiss the case.
Thursday, an attorney for Charlotte County presented oral arguments to a panel of appellate judges in Tampa. The county was seeking to reverse the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's decision to grant permits for Mosaic's 4,200-acre Ona-Fort Green mine extension.
The Ona mine is part of a 20,675-acre tract that Mosaic hopes to strip mine on both sides of Horse Creek in Hardee County.
Next month, Lee and Sarasota counties take Mosaic to an administrative hearing in Tallahassee to challenge state permits for the company's 10,700-acre South Fort Meade mine. The mine is located along the Peace River in Hardee County.
Attorneys for the counties are rushing to prepare for that trial within a 90-day summary hearing rule. The rule gives phosphate companies the right to demand a speedy trial.
Mosaic's suit against Knowlton is related to Lee County's permit challenge. Mosaic, in that case, claimed that Ed de la Parte, Charlotte County's special environmental attorney, should be disqualified because he has a conflict of interest.
According to Mosaic, De la Parte's conflict stems from the fact he had worked for Charlotte County to negotiate a litigation settlement agreement that was never ratified. He also represents Lee County in its challenge of the South Fort Meade permits.
Mosaic's attorneys cite the fact that three county commissioners, in a public meeting in September, said they had objected during a secret meeting in August to de la Parte's representing Lee County in its permit challenge.
In Friday's hearing, Boksner argued that Mosaic's attorney had "improper communication" with Charlotte commissioners. He was referring to letters Mosaic's attorney wrote to Knowlton claiming that de la Parte had a conflict of interest. Mosaic's attorney also sent the letters to the county commissioners.
Boksner told the judge Mosaic's attorneys "fabricated" de la Parte's conflict of interest and were "disingenuous" in presenting that argument to the court, according to a clerk's minutes of the hearing.
De la Parte, in motions in the Lee County case, argued Mosaic's motion to disqualify him should be dismissed. De la Parte cited past court cases in which judges warned that motions to disqualify an opponent's attorney could be used to "harass" the opposing side.
In Charlotte's Ona appeal Thursday, David Caldevilla, an attorney with the de la Parte firm, argued the DEP had failed to consider cumulative environmental impacts in granting the Ona permit.
Mosaic had argued no cumulative impact study was necessary because the company proposed to mitigate the destruction of wetlands by creating manmade wetlands within the same watershed.
However, the county cited an administrative judge's past ruling that found Mosaic was unable to reclaim streams and bay swamps, Caldevilla said.
"(Those types of reclamation) had never been done successfully in the past," he said. "But, this project still allows Mosaic to destroy those water bodies."
Caldevilla and Mosaic spokesman David Townsend each said they were optimistic their side had won the Ona appeal.
But Caldevilla pointed out the appeal involves 40,000 pages of administrative court records, testimony from 43 experts, thousands of exhibits, myriad government regulations, nine weeks of trial transcripts and a 600-page final order.
"I'm optimistic, but there are no guarantees," he said. "It's a huge record. So it's going to require a lot of diligence on the court's part."
By GREG MARTIN