FORT LONESOME — Some people in rural pockets of Hillsborough County greet the spring breezes by opening their windows and doors, eager for a little relief from the heat.
Not Norma Killebrew and her husband, John, who live on the south side of State Road 674.
When the air stirs, they take cover in their home and close it up tight, fearful that heavy dust clouds will send one or both of them back to the hospital.
Norma Killebrew, 69, worries about her grandchildren, who live on the property, as they stand in the swirling dirt, waiting for their school bus.
"People deserve to be healthy," she said.
The Killebrews blame a vast expanse of stripped land, at least 2,000 acres, dotted with towering piles of sand Mosaic dug up and stacked as draglines probed for phosphate on the north side of SR 674, a few hundred yards from their property.
"It's sugar sand that just lifts off in the wind," said Norma Killebrew, who refers to the neighboring property as "the desert."
She said she and her husband, 72, both have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his so bad that he had to use oxygen last month after spending a week in the hospital.
The Killebrews blame phosphate mining not only for excessive dust, but for drying up wetlands and a shallow well on their property that watered the family's cows. State and county regulators haven't confirmed that or cited mining giant Mosaic Co. for any violations.
Russell Schweiss, spokesman for Mosaic, said the mining operation has followed its permit requirements to the letter. Even so, the company has stepped up efforts to keep water on the open dirt and accelerated its plans to build a 25-acre lake, and also plant vegetation on protective berms at the mine's edge by September.
"We have worked with the Killebrews for years," Schweiss said. "We try to go above and beyond with any kind of neighbor issue."
He and local regulators noted that road construction along SR 674 has generated dust on windy days as well. Marvin Blount, field operations chief for Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission's air division, said his staff is working with managers of both projects to reduce problem dust but issued no citations because regulators have not observed dirty air on their site visits.
Schweiss said Mosaic will replace the Killebrews' cattle watering well. He confirmed that the company recently replaced a pond for a nearby mobile home park and occasionally has replaced wells for neighboring landowners. But he said that doesn't mean the company thinks phosphate mining is responsible for the parched environment just west of SR 674 and County Road 39.
Norma Killebrew said increased water truck activity has improved conditions near her home, but she thinks excessive dirt is still wafting over from the east, where more large tracts lie exposed, waiting for draglines or land reclamation.
Mining has gone on around the 50-acre Killebrew homestead since the late 1990s, but Mosaic's Four Corners mining unit directly across the road has affected the family the most, the couple said.
EPC responded to the Killebrews' first dust complaint March 1, Blount said. Norma Killebrew has photographs showing dust clouds obscuring roads in the area as late as April 23.
Behind her house were wetlands and a spring-fed creek that once stoked the Little Manatee River, she said, adding that those dried up in the last few years. She said they had not done so since the Killebrews bought the land in 1964. She said that time span included some of the worst drought periods the region has seen.
Even so, Orlando Rivera, administrator of the mandatory phosphate program for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said Killebrew's wetlands disappeared because of dry weather.
"We are in an extreme drought condition," he said. "Natural wetlands are drying up too, even those that are not close to mining operations."
However, monitoring wells show groundwater levels near Mosaic's Lonesome Mine have dropped up to 3 feet below permitted levels, Rivera said. The mining company is required to try to bring the groundwater back to acceptable levels, and has agreed to fill in deep mining cuts more quickly than usual to try to keep them from trapping rainwater, Rivera said.
Though mining operations include groundwater pumping, Mosaic and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which issues water use permits, say there have been no citations for over-pumping the aquifer.
Schweiss said the Killebrews' property, which is on a downward grade from Mosaic's land, used to receive runoff from irrigation of a tomato field that was there before phosphate mining began. He said Mosaic is not responsible for replacing an "artificial source" of water like that.
He said phosphate mines must clear vast swaths of land to provide the infrastructure needed to accommodate the huge draglines.
Dan Hardy, who lives on Keene Road and drives a delivery truck in southeastern Hillsborough and nearby Polk County, said he has seen excessive dust on windy days near other mining tracts far from the SR 674 construction project. He worries because mining is expected to begin behind his property in a few months.
"What do you think all of us on Keene Road think when we see all this dust blowing?" Hardy said. "It's everywhere out here. It's just because of the massive amount of land that they're mining out here."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at [email protected]