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EPA blasts South Fort Meade mine

Published By: Sun Online

HARDEE COUNTY — The 10,885-acre South Fort Meade phosphate mine should not be approved because it would strip out wetlands and cause “significant adverse impacts” to the Peace River — an “aquatic resource of national importance,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In letters sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July 2007 and August 2007, two EPA wetland permitting officials based in Atlanta leveled some heavy criticism of Mosaic Fertlizer’s proposal to excavate the mine over the next 21 years. 

EPA Water Management Director James Giattina and Administrator J.I. Palmer Jr. declared the Peace River a “priority watershed” and the Charlotte Harbor estuary an “estuary of national importance” in their letters, which they wrote to Col. Paul Grosskruger, head of the ACE permitting section, headquartered in Jacksonville. 

The EPA cites sections of the Clean Water Act that prohibit impacts to nationally important watersheds. 

They also list a series of impacts posed by the mine, including the degradation of wetlands and streams both on-site and downstream. 

“(The) EPA finds this project will have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on ARNI (Aquatic Resources of National Importance),” Palmer wrote. 

To clear up the concerns, Mosaic should reduce the amount of wetlands it proposes to impact, offer more in “compensatory mitigation” and conduct a thorough cumulative impact study, Palmer wrote, adding the study should encompass all phosphate mining in the Peace River watershed now and in the future. 

Despite the concerns, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced July 3 that it intends to approve a batch of state permits for the mine. 

Attempts to contact ACE permitting staffers in Tampa for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful. EPA officials also could not be reached immediately for comment. 

Meanwhile, the Charlotte County Commission is rushing to sign a twoparty litigation settlement pact with Mosaic. 

Charlotte County Attorney Janette Knowlton sent a letter to Mosaic July 3 stating the county would consider agreeing to the pact if Mosaic agrees to several changes to an original version, which was never ratified. 

That version had called for Lee and Sarasota counties and the Peace River/Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority to co-sign. But the other counties opted not to join the pact. 

Charlotte Commissioner Dick Loftus said he views the EPA’s concerns as an indicator the county should proceed even more urgently to sign the pact. 

He said he was disappointed the county attorney waited until July 3 to send the letter. Loftus said he thought the county was going to send it before June 20. 

The deal calls for the county to give up the right to challenge permits in exchange for a monitoring program and a reservoir site in 20 years. 

“(The EPA’s letters) really show the importance of signing the agreement with Mosaic,” Loftus said. “By signing that compact, we have an opportunity to sit at the table with our expert witnesses and try to mitigate any problems we have with the wetlands.” 

Loftus was asked about the fact that the compact would also prohibit the county from commenting to federal agencies or requesting a cumulative impact study, unless Mosaic agrees to the study. 

He replied he didn’t think it would be fair to ask Mosaic to conduct such a study, unless it also encompassed all the impacts of urban development and agriculture. 

Dave Townsend, spokesman for Mosaic, declined to discuss details of the compact Wednesday. 

“That’s the sort of thing we want to be able to sit down and discuss, obviously with a commissioner present, not just the attorneys,” he said. “That worked well during (the previous) negotiations.” 

Kaley Miller of Mosaic confirmed the company is still awaiting approval from the ACE. But additional questions emailed to Mosaic’s Townsend about the EPA letters Wednesday afternoon were not immediately answered. 

Sue Reske, of the Greater Charlotte Harbor Group of the Sierra Club, said she thinks the county should “back way off” the compact until the wetlands concerns cited by the EPA are analyzed. 

“The commissioners have a fiduciary duty to back off of this compact immediately, until they get more information about the other mines and what the EPA thinks they add to this problem,” she said. 

The EPA letters were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Jim Cooper, president of Save Our Watersheds. 

Cooper said he questions how the DEP can be approving the mine, considering the EPA’s concerns. 

“It’s like the monkey with its hands over its eyes, saying, ‘Don’t confuse me with the truth!’” he said. 

Mosaic plans to excavate 511 acres of wetlands and 54,819 linear feet of stream channels totaling some 81 acres. 

The company plans to reclaim the site with 797 acres of manmade wetlands, including 184 acres of lakes and 60,000 linear feet of stream channels. 

Giattina, who inspected the site on July 16, 2007, pointed out that headwater wetlands and streams “are important for wildlife and downstream water-quality protection.” Such resources remove sediments, nutrients and contaminants and provide plant material for the aquatic food chain, he said. 

The “high functional value of the ecosystem” to be impacted would be difficult to replace, he added. 

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