News Section: Opinion
Phosphate Mining, National Security and Environmental Consequences
No mineral better illustrates the future danger the United States faces from neglecting to develop a comprehensive mineral resource management policy than phosphate. The depletion of this essential non-renewable resource will result in serious economic and national security problems for the United States.
If some action is not taken to slow down the present extraction rate of phosphate yearly, Florida will not be a significant factor in the world supply structure within 25 to 35 years. Our country will increasingly have to rely on other countries for phosphate.
It is obvious that we are in an extremely precarious position because of our dependence upon foreign suppliers of non-fuel minerals, unfriendly as well as politically unstable ones. This points up the need even more dramatically to develop a policy to conserve phosphate reserves.
To accept that the decline of phosphate non-renewable resources is no real cause for concern does a remarkable disservice to our national interests. Our national security goals cannot be met if we let this situation of phosphate mineral depletion continue.
Florida's phosphate industry has enjoyed a phenomenal financial bonanza guaranteed to encourage rapid extraction of the resources aided by inadequate environmental laws and regulations.
What this means is, we are permitting the phosphate industry to degrade our environment and without any thought of conservation, are permitting ourselves to be put in the same dependency situation that we are with oil.
To permit the continued, rapid depletion of this essential non-renewable mineral will not only result in serious economic and national security problems for the United States, it will leave Florida with perhaps centuries of costly water, air and land clean-up that will far exceed whatever short-term profits and other indirect economic benefits of the industry there might be.
Projections for phosphate mining longevity in Florida are overly optimistic.
The phosphate resources often cited by the phosphate industry as a likely supply are, of course, much greater than reserves and cannot possibly be mined under existing conditions. It is doubtful these resources will ever become reserves since the cost of producing phosphate in Florida - especially energy related costs - will go up as fast or faster than the sale price of phosphate so that billions of tons of resources may never advance to the reserve classification.
Potential improvements in conservation, substitution and recycling are going to require a more definitive commodity-specific analysis. Market mechanisms will not be adequate to insure conservation of Florida's phosphate resources. Working competitive markets in phosphate minerals don't really exist anymore. This fact coupled with our still cheap, by world standards, energy costs, free groundwater, subsidized transportation etc. aids in promoting the rapid extraction of this vital mineral.
Because the long-term detrimental effects of rapid mining of a non-renewable resource, the estimated value of phosphate minerals in our short-term economy is probably overstated.
As an example, the Draft Areawide Environmental Impact Statement on Phosphate Mining in the Central Florida Phosphate District (DAEIS) recently released by the Army Corps of Engineers implies economic productivity will be enhanced by the continued operation of the phosphate industry and as a result of the trade-offs of destruction of our land and water resources - we get in exchange low-cost fertilizer.
The DAEIS cites the important advantages phosphate mining brings Florida in taxes and employment. However, projected mining income from just Manatee and DeSoto counties combined fails to match the natural resource oriented income of tourism and agriculture.
The costs of pollution and drawdown of Florida's aquifers, loss of wetlands and other natural systems, restricted uses of land after mining, contamination of surface waters, and increased mining-related health costs have never been computed. If the latter were accomplished, the negative economic impact of phosphate mining would become even more apparent.
A proper economic assessment can only be made when the costs of the following are included - the irretrievable commitment of fossil fuels to generate the electricity needs of the industry, the irretrievable commitment of chemicals used in processing, land-use changes caused by the mining that will narrow future land-use plans, timber destruction, loss of habitat types and natural wildlife and community diversity, hazards associated with redistribution of radioactive materials, the drawdown and contamination of groundwater supplies, destruction of wetlands, and finally the social and welfare costs as a result of exposure to products and waste products of these operations.
While we do not totally discount government research and development efforts, we certainly do not view them as a miracle solution to our phosphate mineral problems.
While industry generally protests each proposal that arises to protect human health and the environment - citing certain economic doom, the fact is environmental rules and regulations have resulted in innovative techniques which are helpful to industry being developed & positive economic gains to the national economy in the form of jobs.
As far as the impact of such a phosphate mineral policy on our so-called free enterprise system, subsidized by government as it is, the survival of our nation is threatened by the present rate of phosphate mining. Phosphate is a mineral which is basic and absolutely essential to our national well-being. It is vital to agriculture and has no substitute.
We feel the most important phosphate mineral management policy objective is to ensure conservation of our domestic supply and that attainment of this objective is of paramount importance as yielding the greatest benefits to the nation.
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