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Mosaic files claim against county

Published By: BradentonHerald.com

Mining giant Mosaic Co. wasted little time in laying the groundwork for a $617 million lawsuit against Manatee County, less than two weeks after commissioners narrowly denied the company permission to mine the 2,048-acre Altman tract.

Mosaic on Monday filed a property owner's rights claim under the state Bert Harris Act against the county, stating Manatee commissioners prevented the company from mining 6.2 million tons of high-quality phosphate on the site.

Company spokesman David Townsend said the underground phosphate's estimated value is $630 million, while the unmined land is valued at $13 million. The difference means a possible $617 million suit.

"We don't like having to take this course of action, but we also cannot let Manatee County make a decision that's counter to what all the other government authorities have ruled is proper and sustainable," Townsend said, referring to prior approvals by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water authorities.

The county's legal team Sept. 16 warned commissioners of a costly legal dispute with Mosaic if they denied the mining request. Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague told commissioners Mosaic would "bring every resource to bear." But four of seven commissioners decided the plan did not provide a benefit to the public significant enough to endanger a pristine stretch of wetlands.

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.

Mosaic estimated 46 percent of the wetlands on the site would not be disturbed during mining.

The county attorney's office received Mosaic's claim - one of the first ever Bert Harris claims against the county - Monday and has 90 days to respond before the company formally files suit. Clague will not recommend a course of action until he reviews the entire claim.

The 90-day window opens an interesting scenario for the county. Two of the four commissioners who voted to deny Mosaic's permit - Jane von Hahmann and Amy Stein Fuccini - were defeated in August during Republican primaries by John Chappie and Larry Bustle, respectively. The commissioners-elect will be sworn in Nov. 4.

On the campaign trail, Bustle hinted that he would favor Mosaic's plans if the company was able to restore wetlands after they're mined. His could be the valuable swing vote Mosaic is looking for.

"Ideally, we'll be able to present to the two new commissioners our position on this," Townsend said. "They'd be briefed on the facts and hopefully take the opportunity to tour our operations and see what it is we do and what we don't do. There's a lot of misconceptions out there about the industry and its practices."

County commission procedures say the board may take up an issue again if a commissioner on the prevailing side calls for a re-vote at the first commission meeting after the initial ruling. The board's first meeting since Sept. 16 will be today during a special hearing for 37 homes at Tillet Bayou on Terra Ceia.

Manasota-88, one of the area's most vocal environmental groups, called Mosaic's action a scare tactic to force commissioners into another vote.

"But I don't think they'll be successful," said Glenn Compton chairman of ManaSota-88. "It's not unexpected that Mosaic would try a Bert Harris challenge, but ultimately it will be a very difficult thing to prove on their part because there were no promises made to Mosaic."

The fertilizer giant acquired much of the Altman tract in 1996, during a land swap with the county. Company officials say they made their intentions to mine there clear to the county at the time.

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