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Army Corps to conduct watershed summary

Published By: Charlotte Sun

After 13 years of prodding by environmentalists and politicians, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided to conduct a comprehensive study of the cumulative impacts of phosphate mining on the entire Peace River watershed.

Charlotte County Commissioner Adam Cummings, who had supported the county's push for a Regional Environmental Impact Statement throughout most of his 12 years in office, called the federal agency's decision "a giant step in the right direction."

"I know that, throughout all of our phosphate litigation, our primary goal was to get an EIS and follow it up with a realistic, sustainable management plan (for the mining)," Cummings said Wednesday.

County Commission Chairman Bob Starr also called the decision "a win." He expressed hope that the government can make use of volumes of reports on mining impacts the county procured from experts during its years of anti-phosphate litigation, between 2002-08.

Ironically, however, the impact study came too late to provide insight into the mine application that inspired it. The Army engineers granted that permit June 14 for Mosaic Fertilizer's 10,700-acre South Fort Meade Mine Extension.

The permit was granted over lingering objections from the EPA, which had called for the permit to be denied.

Thomas Welborn, chief of the EPA's wetlands, coastal and oceans branch, pointed out in a Jan. 15 letter to the COE's regulatory commander, Col. Alfred Pantano Jr., that the mine calls for 511 acres of wetlands to be excavated along the Peace River, a "priority watershed."

The river has been designated a resource of national importance because it feeds fresh water to the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary and provides drinking water for 700,000 people, Welborn wrote.

Although Mosaic's plan calls for replacing those wetlands with some 700 acres of man-made wetlands once mining is completed in 21 years, Welborn argued the company didn't do enough to avoid mining some areas, as federal rules require.

He also noted that Mosaic planned to eliminate another high-quality wetland and a stream to make room for a 1,500-acre clay settling area.

Welborn also cited that Mosaic plans to excavate 60,000 linear feet of streams and replace them with man-made versions. Mosaic has no history of reclaiming streams, according to Welborn.

In a March 10 letter to Pantano, Welborn said Mosaic's application once again had brought the need for an EIS to EPA's attention.

Since then, Mosaic offered up some additional mitigation, Welborn said Wednesday. Those measures included adding 60 acres to some 2,000 acres that were to be preserved from mining. That area now includes a 49-acre still-water swamp adjacent to the river that was targeted for excavation, Welborn said.

Mosaic also agreed to place the preservation lands into conservation easements. Welborn said the EPA requested the easements because Mosaic was counting the protection of land from strip mining as mitigation for strip mining.

"We have basically worked with the (COE) district, they recognize they need to improve their process and the colonel has worked with us and he has agreed they need an area-wide EIS," Welborn said. "Unfortunately, this project had been going on for such a long time, neither the Army Corps nor the EPA felt we could delay it any longer."

He said the COE should postpone granting permits for future mines until the study is concluded.

Nancy Sticht, COE public affairs director, said Pantano has taken a special interest in phosphate mining. That interest became clear at a joint-agency summit on phosphate mining May 20, because Pantano spent an entire day at the summit, Sticht said.

The COE is planning a public meeting in October to gather input from citizens, environmental groups and local governments about the scope of the study, Sticht said.

"Col. Pantano wants to make sure we're considering all points of view in order to make good decisions," she said.

Russell Schweiss, spokesman for Mosaic, said his company's position on an areawide study remains the same as it has always been. "We do not object to one as long as it's conducted in a scientifically valid manner and fully distinguishes between early mining practices of those of today," he said.

Jim Cooper of Protect Our Watershed said he was "heartened" to hear about the study, which he believes is required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

"It is long overdue," Cooper wrote in an e-mail to the Sun Thursday.

He called for a moratorium on new phosphate mine permits until the study is completed.

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