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Manatee panel votes no on mine expansion because of wetlands concerns

Published By: Herald Tribune


DUETTE -- An estimated 15 million tons of valuable phosphate are buried under the Altman Tract, 2,048 acres in northeast Manatee County.

Unfortunately for phosphate giant Mosaic Co, which owns the land, the phosphate lies under pristine scrubland and more than 700 acres of wetlands that are rich in wildlife.

Concern over those wetlands, and doubts that they can be re-created once destroyed, led the Manatee County Planning Commission to recommend Thursday that the county deny Mosaic a permit to expand its Four Corners mine in Duette.

Thursday's vote was advisory only; Manatee County commissioners are scheduled to make a final decision on Feb. 5.

But the ruling was a setback for Mosaic, which hired a team of consultants to testify that mining would not harm water quality in the Peace River Basin and that it could successfully re-create wetlands.

The company also dangled the carrot of a new $1 million park and a $500,000 fire station for Duette residents in exchange for county approval.

"I don't think in 20 years you can re-create what it has taken thousands of years to create," said Marilyn Stasica, a board member.

Mosaic is proposing to mine more than 1,500 acres of the tract, including 397 acres of wetlands.

Avoiding the wetlands, which are spread across the site, is not economically viable, company officials said. The phosphate is mainly used to make fertilizer.

Kevin Erwin, an ecologist hired by Manatee County, said the Altman Tract was remarkable for the variety of wetlands it supported, including deep and shallow marshes, forested wetlands and wet prairies.

The land provides habitat for protected species such as the scrub jay and gopher tortoise.

Erwin said current mining techniques remove too much clay from the soil, leaving restored wetlands and adjacent areas with no or little ground water beneath them.

"Typically the ground is overburdened, Erwin said of restored wetlands. "It's hard; it's tough for plants to grow there."

Mosaic officials argued that the project should be approved because of the overriding public benefit.

In addition to the fire station and park, mining the tract would give the state $15.4 million in severance taxes, about $3.3 million of which would go to Manatee County.

Mosaic did get support from some Duette residents who value the jobs the mine expansion would bring as well as the promised park and fire station.

Duette Fire Department became a taxing district only this year. A new station would be a huge benefit for a fire service with an annual budget of less than $150,000.

"We're few and far between, but we're people," said Felicia Tappan, who is a fire commissioner and president of the Duette Civic Association. "We have needs."

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