FORT MEADE — After a hitch in the Navy and work handling psychiatric patients in lockdown, Billy Griffis held a prized job in this corner of rural Central Florida. • Mosaic Fertilizer paid him $42,000 last year as "wrencher" laying big pipes and fixing pumps at its South Fort Meade phosphate mine. Griffis, 35, didn't worry about job security. Fertilizer prices soared in recent months, and the world's largest phosphate fertilizer producer hadn't laid off a worker during the mine's 15-year history. • That changed in September. After the Sierra Club and two Florida environmental groups won a federal court ruling to stop work on new section of the mine, Mosaic warned that hundreds of jobs were at risk, then cut 60. The company blamed the Sierra Club. Environmentalists shot back that Mosaic was playing hard-ball to sway public opinion. • The two sides worked out a deal that will bring all the employees back for a while. But neither is ready to quit. Too much is at stake.
Mosaic says it could run short of Florida phosphate without the Fort Meade expansion. Workers worry they'll be back out of work in a drum-tight job market if the environmental groups win in court. Environmentalists hope a rare court victory will force mining regulators to get tougher with the state's powerful phosphate business.
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The groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on June 30, challenging a permit it gave Mosaic to destroy 500 acres of wetlands in an extension of the mine into Hardee County. The next day, U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. ordered a temporary ban on mining wetlands on the 10,855-acre site.
Within days, Mosaic said it would be forced to close the mine and notified 221 workers they faced layoffs in 60 days unless the judge lifted the order. Instead, Adams indefinitely continued the ban, saying the company could still mine upland areas for as long as two years.
Mosaic called it impractical to navigate massive draglines around pockets of wetlands and still mine enough phosphate to make economic sense. But laidoff workers began returning last week, after the agreement with environmentalists to let Mosaic dig 200 acres that had been prepared for mining before the lawsuit.
That gives employees four months of work while the battle grinds through the courts. What happens next lies in the hands of a federal appeals court in Atlanta.
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Environmentalists say mining those wetlands at South Fort Meade will cause more damage than it's worth. They contend it will lower the level of the already-drained Peace River and the underground aquifer, affecting the local water supply.
Also, destroying wetlands that filter pollutants from stormwater runoff could foul the river that empties 100 miles south into Charlotte Harbor, they say. The river is vital to maintaining the harbor's delicate salinity that hosts endangered species as well as thriving commercial and recreational fishing.
Mosaic is counting on the South Fort Meade mine expansion to produce 30 percent of the rock that its Florida plants process into diammonium phosphate fertilizer, known as DAP. Without the new mine, Mosaic might have to import rock from Morocco or Peru at a higher cost to keep its fertilizer plants running at full capacity.
Any decline in production at Mosaic, which employs 3,000 in Florida, would ripple through contractors and vendors: welders, equipment mechanics, suppliers of bulk chemicals such as liquid ammonia.
Phosphate mining in Central Florida made Tampa a port city in the 1880s and still plays a big role supporting the maritime business.
The phosphate and fertilizer industry generated one-third of the 38 million tons of cargo that moved through the port last year. It supports more than 67,000 jobs in the region, reported a 2006 study commissioned by the Tampa Port Authority.
"It's a singular industry," says port director Richard Wainio. "Florida doesn't have a lot of big industries, and this is at or near the top of the pile as far as economic benefit for the state."
Judge Adams' ruling, believed to be the first court order to stop a Florida mining operation, delighted environmentalists like Dennis Mader of the Protect the Peace River, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
"For years and years, the phosphate industry has ridden along on the short-term economic benefits in the form of jobs, business at the Port of Tampa and contractors," said Mader, a resident of Hardee County. "Everybody's excused the environmental damage that's endemic in their method of operation.''
U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, the Bartow Republican elected Nov. 2 as Florida's agriculture commissioner, on the other hand, contends that environmentalists are out to kill the golden goose.
"If you're serious about putting Florida back to work, why in the world would you eliminate one of its largest employers?" he told the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in September.
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It's not unusual to find families with two or three generations of men who have worked the mines in the vast rural landscape where Polk, Hardee, Hillsborough and Manatee counties come together. They might have played for or against Fort Meade Middle-Senior High School's football team, the Fighting Miners.
Citrus and cattle dominate the local economy outside mining. Without a college degree, it's tough even to find work that pays a little over minimum wage, says Griffis, who returned to his job at the South Fort Meade mine Monday.
Unemployment in his home county of Hardee hit 14.8 percent in September, tied with Hernando for the fourth-highest rate among Florida's 67 counties. While unemployed, Griffis applied for jobs with the city of Wauchula, the county seat and the local McDonald's. None was hiring.
Clay Farris hoped to be back at work as a Mosaic conveyor operator this week or next. On unemployment since September, he has burned through $5,000 in savings and stopped making $1,300 mortgage payments on his house in Frostproof.
The lawsuit has sparked friction within families. Farris, 32, was borrowing his brother-in-law's truck but something on the bumper stopped him in his tracks: a Sierra Club sticker.
"That got ripped off plenty quick," he says. His brother-in-law, a beekeeper, dropped his membership.
Last week, Mosaic announced plans to launch a new business near Fort Meade. The company will build a luxury golf resort on 2,000 acres of restored mine land. Building the golf course, clubhouse and guest villas at Streamsong Resort will employ hundreds of construction workers, Mosaic says. A hospitality management company will employ at least 200 people by the opening, scheduled for fall 2013.
"Without Mosaic's help," Griffis says, "Hardee County would turn into a ghost town."
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Formed by a 2004 merger between IMC-Global and Cargill, Mosaic first applied for the federal permit for the South Fort Meade mine expansion four years ago, after three years of reviews by local and state agencies gave it a green light.
The Corps of Engineers at last approved a permit that allowed Mosaic to souffle more than 500 acres of wetlands or open water. To make up for the environmental damage, the corps required Mosaic to create about 480 acres of new wetlands — something scientists say is often difficult, if not impossible.
The corps' own rules require looking for less environmentally damaging alternatives when a project does not have to be built in wetlands. If the agency relies on the applicant to do that analysis, then the corps must double-check the work.
But according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mosaic and the corps failed to meet their responsibilities. For example, the EPA said, Mosaic should have considered a smaller mine that wouldn't destroy so many wetlands. And the corps didn't independently verify the company's findings.
The EPA declined to use its seldom-invoked power to veto the permit. But the agency's objections to the corps helped persuade Judge Adams to block further mining while the corps must start over on a crucial part of the Mosaic permit application.
Environmental and civic groups, alarmed by the phosphate industry's water use and waste products, have been calling for a decade for the corps to launch a regionwide study of the environmental impact of mining. Instead, the corps has looked only at each permit application on its own.
But the suit over Mosaic's permit contended that past mining has contributed to tremendous environmental degradation in Central Florida. It cited the corps' own findings that phosphate mining had led to the loss of 343 miles of streams and 136,000 acres of wetlands in the Peace River region, as well as a decline in the Floridan Aquifer of up to 50 feet within the Peace River watershed.
After Adams' ruling, the corps finally agreed in August to spend about 18 months on a regional study of phosphate mining's impact on the environment. The reason: In addition to the South Fort Meade mine, the corps has pending wetland destruction permit applications for 11 more new mines, which it says "may result in significant cumulative environmental impacts in the future."
Despite the contentions of Putnam and other pro-mining advocates, "it's not our intention to stop mining," said Glenn Compton of ManaSota-88, another plaintiff in the Mosaic suit. "We just want to make it a better process."
Mosaic worker Farris insists environmental groups go too far when they endanger people's livelihoods.
"I'm all for the environment," he says. "I love to hunt and fish. I take my kids out on the boat. I love camping. But people have got to have jobs."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8128.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections: Florida has 67 counties. An earlier version of the article gave an incorrect number. Also, the high school in Fort Meade is Fort Meade Middle-Senior High School. The article previously gave an incorrect name.