News Section: Local Government
Manatee BOCC Gives Mosaic Concessions on Local Phosphate Mine
BRADENTON -- On Tuesday, phosphate giant Mosaic came before the Manatee County Commission asking for significant changes to their Wingate Extension between SR 64 and SR 62 in Manatee County. Last June, Mosaic won the ability to destroy 49-acres of wetlands, while mining an additional 645.9 acres at the site. The board voted 5-2 to allow them to mine more acreage, extend the length of their operations and delay reclamation.
This time around, the company was seeking more land to mine, including 280 acres currently used as a clay settling area, less berm to protect it (mining that area would require that they eliminate the current 200 ft. setback, separating the two mines, in order to maintain the berm that is intended to keep waste out of the nearby Manatee River watershed), permission to process on-site and off-site ore, and to extend their projected completion date, including its reclamation.
Despite public objection, the Manatee County Planning Commission voted unanimously last week to recommend approval of the request. The application was then fast-tracked to the very next BOCC meeting, just two business days later, which is much quicker than is typically the case. On Tuesday, county staff once again recommended that the application be approved.
The request represented a significant change from last June, when the county approved their Operational Permit at the Wingate Extension. The primary concern of citizens opposed to the plan were the years of trucks, noise, congestion and dust. They had been told back in June that it wouldn't take nearly as long, and that ultimately, there wasn't that much work there to be done at the site. In the current application, Mosaic asked to extend their expiration date for the authorized hauling routes by nine years to 2023, and reclamation to 2027.
“Whether mining is an appropriate use of this property, that decision was made a long time ago,” said Assistant Manatee County Attorney Bill Clague. Clague explained that while he didn’t believe that the county taking a position that it was no longer suitable for mining was defensible, the county does have very specific ordinances when it comes to mining, particularly reclamation. Much of the mining began when there was very little regulation, and before the surrounding areas were developed with residential property, like the nearby Winding Creek development.
“Periodically, over the years, we have asked companies to do more in terms of reclamation,” explained Clague. “The company has the view that they should be able to mine based on the standards that were in place back in the 80’s. We feel that we should be able to ask that they mine in a way that is more consistent with our current standards, so there’s been some disagreement.”
Manatee County Environmental Protection Division Manager Rob Brown said that mining at the site began in 1975, but that reclamation requirements were not in place until 1978. Brown explained that the economics of the industry have changed and areas that were not previously seen as viable in terms of excavation had become feasible. The company argued that there was no cost-effective alternative to modifying their current plan.
The last time the board denied a Mosaic application was 2008. The $23 billion company then threatened a $600-million plus lawsuit, which quickly prompted the board to reverse its decision. Commissioner Michael Gallen questioned whether there existed a threat to the Manatee River watershed, as well as the drinking water of nearby residences, as map overlays showed the proposed area to appear very close to the river. There were also concerns that the trucking of ore would present additional damage to the quality of air and water, as well as road infrastructure.
Sandra Ripberger, who is the conservation chair of Sierra Club Manatee, noted the short time in the process and congratulated everyone on the board who was able to absorb so much, so quickly, noting that she had many, many questions.
Ripberger asked why the previously-approved 50 acres of wetlands the company would be destroying were not included in the overlays and mentioned high-quality wetlands that surrounded the project and questioned the wisdom in reducing the buffers that separated them from mining operations.
Ripberger also noted that the recently-completed AEIS was based in part on Mosaic’s claims that mining on the tract would soon end, and wondered if the information given on water usage accounted for the additional 9 years of operations that the company now plans.
Skip Hannon wanted to know how much inspection occurred on the sites and reminded the board of resident’s previous complaints about the 24-hour a day noise and light that were emitted from the site, questioning whether that was considered in terms of reducing the buffer. County staff said that the mines are regularly inspected by not only their people, but DEP, EPA and the board of health, but that ultimately the county could only enforce its own regulations and report suspected violations to the other agencies.
Long-time Manatee environmental activist Mary Sheppard echoed Hannon’s concerns about inspection and questioned whether the enforcement would follow the approvals. “I appreciate the work that you are putting into this, but I just wish I could have confidence that once this is in place and the DEP takes over, that swift and certain enforcement would follow, and I just don’t.”
Later, I asked Shepard if the answer to her inspections question was satisfactory. She said, "the answer wasn't at all clear." The reason for that could be staff's' answer to, "who's inspecting the mine?" Alissa Powers, from Natural Resources, answered, "the DEP and SWFWMD do periodical inspections, and we are out there once a month," but just minutes later, Ron Brown said, "We do inspections bi-annually." Shepard wasn't alone in her confusion.
Commissioner DeSabatino asked whether there was room to add language that should there be any contamination of the wells, Mosaic would immediately take responsibility for fixing it. DiSabatino said that if it otherwise becomes a civil matter, it would place enormous burden on the residents in terms of time and cost. The Mosaic's Manager of Mine Permitting, Bart Arrington, said that they felt the current system of monitoring and reporting were sufficient and they were not willing to expand their role in terms of responsibility.
In response to DiSabatino's efforts to protect the surrounding residents' wells, Clague reiterated, "If there is a problem with contaminated air or water, it's a matter for the courts to decide." Commissioner Whitmore said, "contaminated water would be a Health Department issue."
Commissioner Benac wanted to ensure that the county was receiving data on water quality at the sites and was ensured by staff that they were. Commissioner Chappie asked that Mr. Brown remind the board that Manatee has some of the toughest mining regulations in existence, and Brown explained that while he “hadn’t checked in a year or so,” that the four years of work they put into the county’s 400-page reclamation ordinances beginning in 2000, have created perhaps the most stringent requirements in the nation.
Commissioner Gallen still had concerns that the county was allowing the company to make additional use of lands at the site without asking them to perform to the current standard of reclamation. Staff said that there were compromises made with the applicant, which considered their ability to meet requirements as it would relate to the company being able to feasibly operate there.
Commissioner DiSabatino asked why if the wetland mitigation is to be traded-out at a five to one ratio according to County Policy (18.104.22.168 section 2a-g) were the 0.62 acre wetland slated to be destroyed only being replaced with a 0.7 acre wetland? The question was directed to Natural Resource Environmental Manager Joel Christian, who said that the five to one ratio was not an absolute mandate.
Commissioner Benac said that this was the sort of project the county should be looking to approve, as there was only “about a half-acre of wetland” being destroyed and there were no additional constraints on water or roads. The new commissioner quickly motioned to approve the ordinance for a deviation to the DRI, which was seconded by Commissioner Chappie. It passed 5-2, with Commissioners DiSabatino and Commissioner Gallen dissenting.
Commissioner Baugh, who also joined the board in the last election, quickly followed with praise of the applicant’s willingness to “do everything we’ve asked of them,” and recommended the approval of the accompanying amendment to the master mining plan. Commissioner Chappie again seconded the motion, which also passed 5-2 with Gallen and DiSabatino dissenting.
Update: Mosaic will next come before the BOCC on Tuesday, February 26, when they will seek seek renewal of their operating permit for the Wingate mine, which is set to expire June 24, 2013.