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Mosaic mine decision delayed again

Published By: bradenton.com

MANATEE -- A federal lawsuit over the mining of phosphate from northeast Manatee's Altman Tract was enough to give local officials pause Thursday. A county vote on the 2,367-acre parcel was delayed for six weeks. County commissioners took their legal team's advice in deferring the issue until Sept. 16. Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague wanted to make sure pending litigation wouldn't affect the county's vote on the valuable land.

The regional Sierra Club, ManaSota-88, People for Protecting Peace River and the Gulf Restoration Network filed suit against the corps Monday, stating the corps issued Mosaic Co. a dredge-and-fill permit last year that "violates the substantive and procedural requirements of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act."

The suit probably won't affect the county's vote, but attorneys wanted time to be sure.

"It's very unlikely that suit will be a legal basis to put off a decision on this," Clague told commissioners. "We will recommend a decision on the 16th one way or another. I'm going to need some time to understand how that plays into our process and to talk to each of you about it."

Mosaic attorney Frank Matthews said the suit will have no bearing on the county's vote, and that the company will return in September to "doggedly request" county approval. The company wants to mine phosphate from 1,521 acres of the Altman site, including 397 of its 732 acres of pristine wetlands. Mosaic has put forth a phased plan to mine and restore the land, along with offering a host of incentives to sweeten the deal.

County officials must weigh the company's land rights along with concerns over affecting the wetlands, the nearby Peace River and wildlife.

Mosaic attorneys have hinted they could sue the county for up to $400 million - the amount the company estimates the potential phosphate is worth - if the permit is rejected. Commissioner Amy Stein, whose district encompasses the Altman Tract, made a plea that the company not take Manatee to court if it doesn't get a favorable vote in September.

"I'm really hopeful that there can be a little bit of broader context applied to this so the taxpayers of Manatee County don't have to be thrown under the litigation bus," she said. "Let's think of a way how that doesn't have to happen."

About 20 environmentalists showed up to take a stand Thursday, many wearing bright green stickers that read, "Don't Risk Our Watershed! Stop the Altman Tract!" No public comment was taken since no new plans were discussed for Altman. The groups said they'll show up in full force at the September hearing instead.

"I don't believe it's appropriate to use a lawsuit as a bludgeon to get an elected body to vote a certain way," said Barbara Hines, a ManaSota-88 board member. "I trust the commissioners will vote on the facts presented and the extreme impact on our environment - the wetlands and Peace River basin."

In exchange for mining rights, Mosaic has offered to pay $1 million for a new fire station and a park for Duette, a rural community whose residents often feel neglected by the county.

"Clearly, our position is the proposed mining won't harm the region's water supply," Mosaic's David Townsend said Tuesday.

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

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