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Manatee and Mosaic sued over mine expansion

Published By: HeraldTribune.com

A legal team with a successful track record of defending the environment sued the county and the Mosaic Co. on Tuesday to block expansion of a phosphate mine.

Earthjustice, which has prevailed against the state in lawsuits regarding Everglades pollution and the lack of pollution standards for rivers, contends the mine will harm wetlands in the basin of the Peace River. The river is a source of drinking water for Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto counties.

On behalf of two environmental groups and several residents, Earthjustice is asking the Circuit Court to overturn a County Commission decision to allow Mosaic to mine a 2,048-acre tract commonly called the Altman Tract.

That 5-2 vote reversed an earlier decision to deny Mosaic's mining application. The U-turn came after the phosphate giant threatened a $617.8 million lawsuit, based on the value of the land and the phosphate ore beneath it.

The environmentalists' lawsuit contends that the county failed to act impartially because officials, including commissioners-elect John Chappie and Larry Bustle, held separate behind-the-scenes meetings with Mosaic in October.

At the same time, county officials refused requests from environmentalists to discuss the mine application.

"We were repeatedly told under no circumstance would they be willing to hear us," said Cris Costello, regional representative of the National Sierra Club.

The lawsuit also questions the legality of Mosaic's offer to build a fire station and community park in Duette, providing the mine was approved.

Mosaic later expanded the incentives to include an environmental education center and a pledge to pay for maintenance of the park.

"It's zoning for sale in Manatee County and sets a precedent," Costello said. "We believe that is not a legal one to set."

Earthjustice is a nonprofit environmental law firm based in California. It filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club, the environmental group ManaSota-88, environmentalist Mary Sheppard and Duette residents John Rehill and John Korvick.

Chappie and Bustle, the two commissioners who met privately with Mosaic, cast pivotal votes in the January decision to approve the mine.

In September, commissioners Joe McClash, Ron Getman, Amy Stein and Jane von Hahmann formed the majority that rejected Mosaic's expansion of its Four Corners Mine.

Chappie replaced von Hahmann and Bustle replaced Stein on the commission. With commissioners Gwen Brown, Donna Hayes and Carol Whitmore, they formed a new majority that approved Mosaic's plan.

Before that vote, Chappie and Bustle disclosed that -- before taking the oath of office -- they and county attorneys met privately with Mosaic executives.

Opponents of the mine charged that the private talks violated public meetings laws.

Bustle and Chappie did not immediately return phone calls from the Herald-Tribune late Tuesday afternoon.

Brown, the commission chairwoman, said she believes the county can defend its decision to avoid litigation with Mosaic. Generally, local governments have not fared well in Florida courts when litigants claim their property rights are being violated, Brown said.

David Townsend, Mosaic's director of public affairs, declined to comment. "We haven't seen a copy of the complaint. So there's not much I can say."

McClash said he is not surprised that the county and Mosaic are now co-defendants.

"To me, it's zoning for dollars," McClash said of the mine approval.

McClash said he wonders if Chappie's and Bustle's private sessions with Mosaic could weaken the county's defense.

If a judge rules that those talks violated the Government-in-the-Sunshine Law and throws out Mosaic's approval, the mine proposal could be brought before the commission again.

Yet those private conferences could still be an issue, McClash said. "How do you correct a wrong? The damage has been done."

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