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Mining project may find new life

Published By: HeraldTribune.com

MANATEE COUNTY - Facing a $618 million lawsuit from the world's biggest phosphate mining company, Manatee County may reverse its denial of a 2,000-acre mining project in the Peace River Basin.

On Tuesday, county attorneys will ask commissioners to agree to a settlement deal with the Mosaic Company that includes new public hearings for Mosaic's plan to mine the Altman Tract, a North Manatee parcel that includes 400 acres of high-quality wetlands.

Citing environmental concerns, commissioners in September denied Mosaic a permit, 4-3. But two commissioners who voted against the mine are no longer on the board. Environmentalists now fear the commission will reverse itself rather than risk going to court.

"To bend under this bully action by Mosaic is, we think, unnecessary and misguided," said Cris Costello, a Sierra Club regional representative. "To go in this direction and ignore the past process and the vote is outrageous."

The proposed settlement drawn up by county and Mosaic attorneys includes provisions from Mosaic that would allow it to mine all of the site without having to wait until it has successfully restored wetlands destroyed in the first phase of mining.

Mosaic will instead set aside wetlands it owns at another site, a provision that environmentalists said lessens the guarantee that Mosaic will restore destroyed wetlands.

The settlement deal does not guarantee the county would approve the project. But it does commit the county to join with Mosaic to fight any legal challenges should commissioners grant Mosaic a permit this time.

That may be necessary.

Environmental groups have fought a long battle against mining in the Peace River Basin. Most recently, four environmental groups including the Sierra Club and ManaSota-88, sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saying the corps improperly granted a dredge and fill permit to Mosaic for the Altman Tract in May.

The corps later withdrew the permit, saying it needed to revisit its decision, a move that environmentalists say strengthens the county's legal position.

"Manatee County should not be in any hurry considering the fact Mosaic does not have the federal permit they need to proceed," Costello said.

Mosaic acquired the Altman Tract more than a decade ago in a land swap with the county.

Company officials based the value of their pending lawsuit on their estimate that more than 600 million tons of phosphate lie under the soil there. The $618 million they would seek is more than the county spends on all programs and services in one year.

Mosaic attorneys gave the county 90 days to reverse its decision. That deadline expires at the end of this month.

"That's obviously a reason for the county to look at the position they've taken in the past and see if there can be a more reasonable approach," said Dave Townsend, a Mosaic spokesman. "We feel the prior vote wasn't proper and we have a legitimate claim."

The controversial project became something of a test case for Manatee County's wetland protection ordinance, which states that wetlands should be preserved except where there is an overriding public benefit.

Mosaic said its offer of a new park and fire station for the Duette community met that condition.

But county environmental staff warned that approving the mine expansion could set a precedent for future mining projects. Mosaic has only mined about 17,000 of the 45,000 acres it owns in Manatee County. Much of that land is in rural and environmentally sensitive areas.

The tract lies in the headwaters of Horse Creek, one of six major tributaries to the Peace River, a significant source of drinking water for Charlotte, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

Former Commissioner Jane von Hahmann said that was partly behind her vote against the project.

"There are points in time when you need to protect our water resources," she said.

Both von Hahmann and Amy Stein, who also voted against the Mosaic plan, were defeated in the Republican primary in August. They were replaced by former Bradenton Beach City Commissioner John Chappie and former Palmetto Mayor Larry Bustle.

Observers have described the new commission as more business friendly.

Bustle said he would wait to see the details of the settlement offer before deciding whether to support reopening hearings.

"This is an opportunity to avoid very costly and very risky litigation," he said. "We've got a new board now. It may be that a different decision is reached that is more valuable to the county."

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