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CF promises 'stewardship' in new mine

ONA -- CF Industries, on its next phosphate mine, will be required to preserve as much of the natural streams and wetlands as feasible and replace those resources destroyed acre-for-acre, according to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection official.

And CF Industries, which is planning to strip out 1,475 acres of wetlands on its 7,500-acre proposed South Pasture Extension mine, understands the importance of following those guidelines, according to Richard Ghent, CF director of community affairs.

He said his company understands that the Peace River and its tributaries, which have already incurred significant impacts from some 300,000 acres of phosphate mining to the north, are important to sustain the Charlotte Harbor estuary and the water supply for a four-county region.

"I mean we really get that," Ghent said. "At the end of the day, though, we also have to feed people.

"We have the lowest cost food in the world," he added.

The company applied for a state environmental resource permit in March. The DEP recently extended a public comment period, which was to end June 9, until Sept. 7.

Some local environmentalists are gearing up to express concerns.

Jim Cooper, president of Protect Our Watershed, pointed to a 2007 DEP chart that shows CF had only reclaimed 25 percent of some 5,900 acres it had mined since 1978 on its existing 25,000-acre South Pasture mine. He called for the DEP to require 90 percent be reclaimed before CF can open another mine.

"I think they're going to rip it out first and then, like Humpty Dumpty, they're going to try to put it back together again," Cooper said.

Sue Reske, chairwoman of the Charlotte Harbor Group of the Sierra Club, said no strip mining should be allowed in the watershed of an estuary and a water supply. The U.S.'s fertilizer supply could instead be imported from Morocco or China, she said.

Even if CF replaces lost wetlands with manmade versions, permanent damage may already have been done underground, Reske said.

"Their method of extracting phosphate still rips up all of the under layers that act as a conduit for the aquifers and surface waters," she said.

But, Rick Cantrell, a DEP deputy director over water resources, said the state has become more focused than in the past on requiring phosphate companies to preserve or restore what he calls "the veins and arteries" of the Peace River system.

"We're trying to do our job of making phosphate mines fit into the environment in a way that causes the least destruction to the wetlands and so it provides excellent habitat, and water resources are protected into the future," Cantrell said.

History of alterations

Established in the 1940s as a fertilizer cooperative, CF began mining on what is now a 25,000-acre tract located in northwest Hardee County in 1978. That mine, which was divided into two sections, the North Pasture and South Pasture, is expected to play out in about 14 years.

The 7,500-acre tract just south of the South Pasture would add another nine years to the life of the mine, according to Herschel Morris, CF vice president of operations.

The company has already begun looking to acquire additional reserves, both in Central Florida and as far away as Peru, where phosphate reserve was discovered in the 1920s in a desert region, Morris said.

To mine for phosphate, "draglines," which are cranes with gigantic buckets, first excavate a top layer of "overburden" which is cast aside in rows. Below that layer, typically 30 to 40 feet deep, is the ore-bearing "matrix."

The draglines then excavate the matrix, which contains 50 percent sand, 25 percent clay and 25 percent phosphate rock. The material is pumped to a beneficiation plant in a slurry pipeline. There, a chemical process separates the sand, clay and phosphate.

The phosphate then gets shipped by rail to CF's fertilizer plant near Plant City, Fla. The clay and sand get pumped back to the mine. At other mines, the slurried clay gets disposed in a reservoir called a Clay Settling Area. The sand gets pumped into the pit to fill it in.

When CF's existing mine was approved by Hardee County in 1976, the county insisted it be reclaimed with an experimental sand/clay mix. To make the material, the clay is first allowed to settle to a consistency "like chocolate pudding or tooth paste," said Ghent. Sand is then mixed in and the material is pumped to a reservoir.

The goal was to return the settling areas to agricultural use within two years, Ghent said.

Ultimately, 60 percent of CF's existing mine will be covered with sand-clay mix. But, little of CF's lands have been put into agricultural use to date, company officials acknowledge. It takes special equipment and techniques to farm the sites, said Morris.

"Yeah its different, but it's very fertile," he said..

On the proposed SPX mine, Hardee County wants traditional clay settling areas. Mine plan calls for three clay areas covering 26 percent of the site.

Replacing streams

The company plans to preserve 1,000 acres including some 90 percent of the bay swamps on the site. Also, much of the 100-year flood plain of Brushy Creek, a tributary to Horse Creek, will be preserved, said Ghent.

However, a large wetland that currently feeds Brushy Creek will be replaced with a clay settling area, according to the plan.

Also, Lettis Creek, a tributary to Brushy, will be preserved, but some of its headwater wetlands will be also be replaced to make room for a clay settling area.

Also, Troublesome Creek, a Peace tributary, will be excavated. However, CF plans to replace it with a man-made stream that should function better, according to Morris. He pointed out Troublesome had been heavily altered by agricultural ditching.

"It will be mined, but when we put it back, it will look better than it does now," he said.

The company has pioneered some innovations in stream restoration methods. At Doe Branch, engineers worked to create a meandering flow way that incorporates dead trees to create "snags" for wildlife.

At Hickey Branch, a forest of oaks, maples and cypress is taking root along the banks of a manmade stream.

Once wetland vegetation meets DEP specifications, such mitigation can be reconnected to the natural system.

The mine plan was designed by consultants who used a computer model to predict that no significant water-related impacts would occur, he said.

Cooper and Reske remain skeptical.

"I'm not an engineer and I'm not a geologist, but our water is only available from two sources, water on the land and water under the ground," said Cooper, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. "Once you substitute a clay bowl for natural soil, it's not going to go down to the aquifer."

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