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Wetlands mining decision delayed

Published By: bradenton.com

MANATEE -- After several years of delay and nine hours of discussion Tuesday, county commissioners still didn't have enough information to decide on one of the largest projects ever to appear before them.

A decision on the controversial Altman tract, a 2,000-acre plot in northeast Manatee, was delayed for the 19th time in five years - this time until April 14 - sending experts on both sides of a sensitive environmental issue scrambling to prepare a new set of findings to fortify their case.

At stake is the future of a huge expanse of land, including almost 400 acres of pristine wetlands, and the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of minerals that lie beneath.

Phosphate mining giant Mosaic Fertilizer proposed an enticing plan to county commissioners, promising to restore whatever wetlands are lost or damaged in the mining process, along with offering a $1 million park and fire station for rural Duette. In exchange, the company, a subsidiary of the Fortune 500 Mosaic Company, would win the rights to unearth the valuable phosphate 50 feet under the surface. Part of the company's argument is that local phosphate goes to make fertilizer, which keeps costs down for farmers, in turn lowering grocery prices.

The county in the past has allowed phosphate mining near the Four Corners area of northeast Manatee. But there has never been a proposal so big and with as much impact to virgin wetlands.

Officials want to know more about how mining operations affect the surrounding areas, not just the lands inside the mining pocket. They also want more solid data on how mining could ultimately affect the Peace River, one of the region's main sources of drinking water.

"If I had to go with the record as presented today, I would not support this," said Commissioner Amy Stein. "But what's been presented is too incomplete. I'd like to see the success (of reclaimed wetlands) and how that's defined and what that means in three dimensions on the ground."

The company's scientists offered assurances that nearly 400 acres in damaged wetlands would be held "in escrow" on a preserve 10 miles south until they can be re-planted atop the Altman tract after it's mined. Commissioners were cool to the idea of holding land "hostage" without full confidence of Mosaic's history of restoring wetlands, a process called reclamation.

Mosaic already has scaled back its project significantly, and the company says its plan meets county parameters for mineral mining. They contend that mining operations in the county will boost the local economy and reinforce export operations at Port Manatee. "There are 15 million tons of recoverable phosphate on the Altman tract. The plan we have developed means we are going to lose almost 7 million tons," said Dee Allen, Mosaic's permitting and reclamations superintendent. "Forty percent of the reserve would be left in the ground because of this preservation. That's a lot. I'm sure if in your investments you lost 40 percent of them, you would think that's a lot as well."

The wetlands pepper the entire site, and mining around them would cut too far into profits, Mosaic says.

Opposed to the plan are local environmental groups and county staffers who say extensive mining on Altman could impact Horse Creek, a nearby water basin that feeds into the Peace River.

Opponents also contend the mining could tear up too much wetland to be replaced and that reclaimed wetlands simply aren't as valuable to the ecology as natural wetlands.

"The issue here is that it's a temporary impact to the wetlands," said Commissioner Joe McClash. "Our staff doesn't agree that they can be brought back to 100 percent. You offer 'reasonable assurance,' and that leaves the door open."

One argument against the mine came from Sydney Bacchus, a Georgia hydroecologist who studies the impacts of similar excavations. She told the commission the mining could have "extremely significant" impacts to neighboring wetlands.

"My concern is, what will your costs be when you're having catastrophic wildfires?" Bacchus said. "In my opinion, the fire along I-4 was the result of mining in the area that had disrupted the groundwater and left those wetland areas extremely susceptible to wildfire."

The commission will have to weigh several considerations before making a final decision. At the heart of the matter is a brief statement in the county's comprehensive plan that prevents wetlands from being impacted unless there's a significant benefit to the public. Mosaic argues it has exceeded whatever is required by the county to meet that test.

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