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Manatee commissioners deny Altman Tract mining

Published By: bradenton.com

In a landmark decision that's sure to have far-reaching consequences for both the environment and Manatee government, county commissioners Tuesday denied fertilizer giant Mosaic Co. the right to mine for phosphate on the 2,048-acre Altman Tract, capping a seven-year process of demands and concessions between the two sides.

The board voted 4-3 to deny the company's plans to unearth 1,409 acres of valuable phosphate near the northeast corner of the county. Mosaic offered up a final set of concessions, including a bank of wetlands they could not mine until they showed they could restore mined areas and wetlands.

But the commissioners determined the company's plans to mine a pristine stretch of wetlands did not provide significant benefit to the public - as required by the county's Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code regarding wetlands.

Commissioners Jane von Hahmann, Amy Stein Fucini , Joe McClash and Ron Getman voted to deny the request. Commissioners Donna Hayes, Carol Whitmore and Gwen Brown voted to allowing mining.

"If it didn't affect so many wetlands, my vote would be different," Getman said.

Tuesday's decision, though, could set off an expensive battle with the company. Mosaic spokesman David Townsend said the company was disappointed but not surprised at the denial. He said the county's ruling defied an objective review of the facts. "We're left with no choice but to aggressively pursue all judicial and administrative remedies available," Townsend said. "That includes recovery of an economic loss."

Some have estimated the 9 million tons of recoverable phosphate on the land could net upwards of $400 million.

"I can't say whether or not you will win, but it's not going to be easy or cheap to litigate it," said Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague. "We're talking about a long haul in the courts. They will bring every resource to bear."

The threat of taxpayer money being needed to defend against any lawsuit filed by Mosaic and the company's assurances they could reclaim the wetlands were enough for Hayes, Brown and Whitmore to vote against the majority.

"It is time for us to work together with Mosaic," Hayes said. "For all social conservatives, we did not put the phosphate there, the good Lord did, and I'm sure it was for a purpose."

Mosaic had plans to mine about 1,400 acres, including 291 acres of wetlands. Another 107 acres of wetlands would be mined if the company could successfully restore damaged and mined wetlands within five years. If the wetland restoration failed, the company would have forfeited rights to mine an estimated 700,000 tons of phosphate.

Dee Allen, Mosaic's permitting superintendent, said the company's latest proposal "clearly demonstrates our confidence and our ability to reclaim these wetlands."

Mosaic's mining plan called for sidestepping a sensitive marsh area. The company also offered to build a new Duette fire station and a new community park, and pay for three years of operating expenses to the county for the park.

Tuesday's decision was a major victory for environmental groups who opposed any form of mining for fear it would impact wetlands, watershed areas and the nearby Horse Creek and Peace River.

"I'm pleased our commission voted to protect the environment and were willing to stand up for what's right for the citizens of Manatee County," said Barbara Hines, a ManaSota-88 board member.

The Sierra Club and other green groups in July attempted to block mining at Altman by filing suit against allowing the permits. The court has not yet reached a decision, but county attorneys said it would not affect a mining decision for Manatee.

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