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Manatee leaders reject Mosaic mining plan

Published By: Heraldtribune.com

MANATEE COUNTY - The county could face a multimillion-dollar lawsuit after commissioners Tuesday rejected a proposal by Mosaic Phosphate to expand mining on land teeming with pristine wetlands.

Mosaic is expected to take legal action to reverse Tuesday's rejection and grant the company access to the 1,521-acre "Altman Tract" in the northeast corner of the county near Duette.

The stakes are high. Nearly $400 million worth of phosphate, which is used as a component of farm fertilizer, is on the property, county officials say.

But to get at it, the company would have to destroy about 400 acres of high-quality wetlands in an area that feeds into one of the region's primary water supplies.

A sharply divided County Commission voted 4-3 against the mining expansion. County approval was the last regulatory step needed for the company to begin mining.

The decision capped years of debate and negotiations with the company, which offered to preserve much of the land, restore the wetlands after mining ceased and build the town of Duette a new fire station and county park.

Commissioners Joe McClash, Ron Getman, Amy Stein and Jane von Hahmann voted against Mosaic. Both Stein and von Hahmann were defeated in last month's Republican primary and will leave office in November.

Those opposed said they worry that mining would permanently destroy the land, and by extension, the quality and quantity of water flowing down into the Peace River, a major source of the region's water supply.

"If the board chooses wrong, it's going to be a very bad call for tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of people for decades," Stein said.

Commissioners who supported the plan said they believe Mosaic can restore the land adequately after all the phosphate is mined. And, in these tough economic times, the county should not be a roadblock to local business expansion, they said.

"It is time to work with the business community, and we need to work with Mosaic," said Commissioner Donna Hayes.

A protracted lawsuit with the mining giant could be costly for the financially strapped county. Money to fund a legal defense would likely come from the county's taxpayer-supported general fund.

Charlotte County spent $12 million in a failed attempt for much of this decade to block the Altman Tract plan.

"It's not going to be cheap or easy to litigate it," Assistant Manatee County Attorney Bill Clague told commissioners before their vote. "This is a well-financed applicant with a lot of dollars at stake."

Within minutes of the decision, Mosaic spokesman David Townsend confirmed that a lawsuit was likely.

"We're going to pursue all the legal and administrative remedies available to us," he said.

Mosaic promised to preserve 527 acres of wetlands, and build the new fire station and park.

The company also pledged to set aside 107.5 acres of wetlands and not mine it until the other mine land had been restored.

While these efforts gained the company some allies in Duette, local environmentalists have vigorously opposed the plan.

They are currently suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its decision to grant Mosaic a license to mine the property.

The Sierra Club, Mana-Sota-88, the Gulf Restoration Network and People for Protecting Peace River filed the federal suit last month. They claim that the Corps of Engineers did not adequately consider the environmental ramifications of the plan.

Not surprisingly, they were pleased with the commission's decision. Still, they said the courts will likely have to resolve the matter.

"It's certainly not over, by any means," said Glenn Compton, president of ManaSota-88. "Whether it goes to court is up to Mosaic."

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