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EPA Says Fort Meade Mine Would Hurt Peace River

Published By: Fort Meade Leader

The 10,885-acre South Fort Meade phosphate mine in Hardee County 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 two-party 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 e-mailed 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.

Last week the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued notices it intended to approve the 10,856-acre strip mine along the Peace River in Hardee County.

The permit would allow Mosaic Fertilizer LLC to excavate 7,756 acres of uplands, wetlands and streams on its South Fort Meade mine, located just east of the river between Fort Meade and Wauchula.

The excavation will destroy 751 acres of wetlands and surface waters, including 58,769 linear feet of streams - all in a watershed that already suffers from significant losses of those resources, according to the DEP's own 2007 Peace River Cumulative Impact Study.

The permit would also allow Mosaic to excavate 70 acres within the Peace River's 100-year flood plain and 58 acres within Little Charlie Creek's 100-year flood plain. That's 128 acres in an area where mining would have been prohibited, had Mosaic abided by the terms of a five-party Phosphate Compact that was never ratified.

The flood-plain mining plan exposes a “double standard” in Mosaic's dealings with Charlotte County, said the county's special environmental attorney, Ed de la Parte. He pointed out that whenever Charlotte County submitted comments on state or federal phosphate mine permits, Mosaic “chastised the county for not being consistent and not acting in good faith” with the terms of settlement pacts that were under negotiation.

Yet Mosaic's plan to mine in the flood plains appears inconsistent with the spirit of the compact, de la Parte said.

Approved by Charlotte County last fall, the Phosphate Compact stalled after Lee and Sarasota counties declined to sign. Mosaic is still working to enlist their support. But in June, the company also asked Charlotte County if it would consider signing the pact alone.

The county was to send a letter last week to Mosaic signaling its willingness to sign, de la Parte said.

If the county signs that two-party pact, then Mosaic would abide by the terms of the agreement, even if that means canceling the plan to mine in the 100-year flood plains on the South Fort Meade tract, said Kaley Miller, public affairs manager for Mosaic.

“We haven't started mining yet,” she noted.

She said the areas to be mined in the flood plains consist of cow pastures, not sensitive habitats. Also, Mosaic will preserve another 300 acres adjacent to the flood plains that consist of natural habitats, so that balances the impact, she said.

“The idea is to preserve what is important - ecosystems and habitat,” Miller said. “The 100-year flood-plain model is just an estimate - it doesn't always reflect the actual conditions on the ground.”

Miller also pointed out the areas to be mined in 100-year flood plains amount to a fraction of the area not to be mined. In the Peace River's flood plain, for example, 773 acres will be left unmined. In Little Charlie Creek, 925 acres of the flood plain will be unmined, she said.

In total, the company has agreed to place 2,100 acres under a conservation easement for permanent preservation.

“We are essentially staying out of the 100-year flood-plain ecosystems along Little Charlie Creek and (the) Peace,” Miller said.

The DEP's notice gives the public 21 days to challenge the permits for the mine and reclamation plans.

De la Parte pointed out the DEP's actions came a few days before a holiday weekend and one week after Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill making it very difficult for people to challenge phosphate mining permits. The legislation gives phosphate companies the right to demand summary judgments within 90 days.

“In all honesty, I believe (with) the scheduling of the notice in such a way, DEP has really adversely affected (the) ability of Charlotte County and other interested persons to realistically review this action,” de la Parte said.

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