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Permit suspension doesn't stop mining

Published By: Charlotte Sun

Some environmental groups are hailing it as a "victory," but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision to suspend a permit for Mosaic Fertilizer's Altman Tract phosphate mine doesn't faze the company.

The federal agency's action, to stop strip mining in areas that impact wetlands under federal jurisdiction, merely amounts to a temporary hold on the strip mining of some 500 acres of wetlands on the 2,000-acre site in order to review the environmental analysis Mosaic had submitted some years ago, said Mosaic spokesman David Townsend.

Mosaic expects to resolve any concerns over the analysis within a few months by submitting further information, he said.

Meanwhile, Mosaic is continuing to mine the uplands on the site, he said.

"We're not precluded from mining uplands, so we're continuing to mine," Townsend said.

However, Monica Reimer, an attorney for Earthjustice, which along with several other environmental organizations sued the Corps in July, said Mosaic can't be mining the Altman Tract. She pointed out that Manatee County in September also denied a county development order that would have allowed Mosaic to turn the agricultural site into a mine.

"There is no mining on the Altman Tract and there is no approval from Manatee County," Reimer said. "So, whatever Mosaic wants to say about how they would like to interpret the Army Corps' permit suspension, and what they're doing, that's up to them."

Reimer also pointed out that Mosaic had argued in the past that it would be "impossible" to mine the uplands on the Altman tract if the company were prohibited from mining the wetlands, which are strewn across the site.

If it is possible for Mosaic to mine the uplands without impacting the wetlands, the company should have proposed that in the first place, she said.

The arguments came in interviews Wednesday, a day after Mosaic was notified by Col. Paul Grosskruger, district commander of the Corps' wetlands permitting section, that its Altman Tract permit was suspended.

However, Grosskruger, in his Oct. 3 letter, also said the permit covers "all activities in waters of the United States," but does not cover activities within upland areas or isolated wetlands not under federal jurisdiction.

Located at the headwaters of Horse Creek in eastern Manatee County, the Altman Tract encompasses 2,367 acres. Of that, 846 acres are federal wetlands and 42.8 acres are isolated wetlands under state regulation, said Reimer, citing the Corps' environmental assessment.

Townsend tallied the amount of federal wetlands on the site at about 500 acres. He also emphasized that 46 percent of the wetlands will be preserved. The site will also contain 100 acres more in new, manmade wetlands once the site is reclaimed, he added.

Earthjustice argues in its lawsuit that the environmental analysis submitted by Mosaic failed to calculate the impacts of the mining throughout the basin. The analysis cites excerpts from a draft site-specific Environmental Impact Statement, which is a more extensive study, originally submitted for Mosaic's proposed 20,600-acre Ona mine.

But, that EIS is inadequate because it has yet to be finalized, Reimer said. It has been the subject of "voluminous" comments and criticism from environmental groups and local governments, she pointed out.

Townsend pointed out the Altman Tract is surrounded on three sides by the sprawling Fort Green Mine, so wetland impacts are less of a concern.

"Well, you mine where the reserves are, and it's a natural progression when you mine where the reserves are that you move into the adjacent area," he said.

That logic shouldn't apply to the Altman Tract, however, because of the high-quality nature of the wetlands and uplands on the site, said Reimer.

"It's a very good bit of what is left that has not been mined in the headwater areas of Horse Creek, and headwater areas are the most important areas, ecologically speaking, of a river system, because this is where all the biological processes begin to take place," she said.

Calls to Corps permitting officials for comment were referred to the U.S. Department of Justice because litigation over the Altman Tract remains pending. Department of Justice spokesman Andrew Ames declined comment, other than to confirm the Corps had suspended the permit.

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