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Group to challenge Altman dredging

Published By: bradenton.com

MANATEE -- A regional office of the Sierra Club plans to file suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week in an effort to block a controversial mining plan in the northeast corner of Manatee County known as the Altman Tract. Frank Jackalone, a Sierra Club senior regional representative, said the club and other green groups will file suit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida on Tuesday against the Corps on grounds that it issued a dredging permit to Mosaic Co. for the Altman Tract last year before following oversight procedures.

"We are demanding that the Corps take the usual procedure of conducting a full environmental impact statement, which we've asked them to do previously, but they refused to do it," Jackalone said. "Our attorneys are convinced the Corps should have had full study and a full public hearing."

Corps officials and Mosaic spokesman David Townsend were not available for comment Friday.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are gearing up for another showdown over phosphate mining on the Altman Tract.

Mosaic has designs on unearthing valuable minerals on 1,500 acres at the tract, but 400 acres of pristine wetlands sprinkled throughout the property have made it almost impossible to avoid an environmental impact.

The company Thursday will present to county commissioners a phased plan to mine and restore the land, along with offering a host of incentives to sweeten the deal. Officials will have to determine whether Mosaic's plan meets the public interest, but the area's top environmental groups aren't buying in.

The mining giant has proposed an enticing plan to county commissioners: In exchange for mining rights, the company says it will chip in another $1 million for a new fire station and a park for Duette, a rural community on the outskirts of the county whose residents often feel neglected by the county.

Duette fire officials are on board with the plan, having told Manatee's planning commission in December that a new station is sorely needed in the community. Fire operations are now housed in a refurbished pole barn, and outdated equipment services a 136-square-mile area.

Mosaic contends new jobs will be created, meaning higher tax revenues for the state and for the county.

Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, thinks Mosaic isn't offering any new concessions, only a new timeline for destroying sensitive land.

"Ultimately, they'll destroy all the wetlands, so nothing is being gained in this proposal," Compton said. "Unless they do a complete avoidance of wetlands, there's no way they can meet the requirements of Manatee's comp plan."

At the heart of the matter is a brief statement in the county's comprehensive plan that protects wetlands from being affected unless there's a significant benefit to the public. Mosaic representatives say they've gone above and beyond what's best for the public.

"It's probably the most scrutinized application ever brought before Manatee County, and we believe it's the highest quality in terms of balancing environmental protections with the rights of a property owner," Mosaic's Townsend said in February. "The public's interest is met through conservation, preservation and protection of Manatee watershed lands and connection of wildlife corridors to Duette Preserve. The wetlands are some of the highest quality lands in Florida."

Rob Brown, the county's environmental voice on the Altman Tract, was not at work last week and was unavailable for comment.

Mosaic's environmental representatives say the company has a strong track record in restoring mined land, especially wetlands, to its original state. But an independent hydroecologist casts serious doubts on restoring land during a hearing earlier this year, telling county officials mining the Altman Tract could have "extremely significant" impacts to neighboring wetlands.

Environmentalists question whether Mosaic could adequately restore the wetlands. They're also concerned about the possible effects on Horse Creek and the Peace River, one of the region's main sources of drinking water. They worry that mining could destroy a delicate balance of fresh and saltwater in Charlotte Harbor that allows shellfish to flourish there.

"Ultimately, it's not a mine that should be approved because it's in the headwaters of Horse Creek," Compton said.

Mosaic has addressed dozens of concerns over dozens of meetings with county officials over the years. Complications and more than 30 postponements have kept it from being heard at the highest level for more than six years.

If you go

What: Public hearing on Mosaic Fertilizer's plans to mine the Altman Tract

When: 1:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: First-floor chambers, Manatee County Government Administrative Center, 1112 Manatee Ave. W.

Nicholas Azzara, county reporter, can be reached at 745-7081.

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