A dramatic new phase of phosphate mining along the Peace River in Southwest Florida is in the works, raising concerns about whether government will effectively protect the source of drinking water for 700,000 Floridians.
Mosaic Co. wants to strip-mine more than 20,000 acres along the Peace River south of Polk County. At issue is whether environmental protections will be sacrificed by granting the company its permits in a piecemeal fashion, or whether the full impact of mining will be weighed against the harm it could cause a region crucial to water supplies.
The state is hobbled by a restrictive law, so it's up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the river. More than a century after mining began here, there's no excuse for repeating past mistakes.
The Tampa Bay Rays discovered just this month how divisive an issue phosphate mining is for the residents who depend on the Peace River. The team announced, then later canceled due to public outcry, plans to give naming rights to its Port Charlotte spring training stadium to Mosaic.
In its defense, Mosaic operates far more responsibly than past miners, who have wreaked havoc on the Peace River valley. It offers good-paying manufacturing jobs and produces needed fertilizer for crops. And the company won a 10-year legal battle brought by Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties and others, to maintain its right to carry out the strip-mining over two decades.
But the sins of past miners haunt the region. The U.S. Geological Survey recently issued a report on the upper reaches of the Peace River between Bartow and Fort Meade. Where water once bubbled from artesian wells, springs and creeks, USGS found mined-out feeder streams had become municipal and industrial drainage ditches. One creek, which had no name before, has one now — "Phosphate Mine Outfall CS-8.''
The river's banks, the agency wrote, are marked by large piles of mine waste, and for the next 13 miles downstream numerous clay settling areas border the area alongside the floodplain. Clay, a waste product, is a lingering threat. Mines store the wet goo behind huge berms. In 1971, a dike broke and 2 billion gallons of clay poured into the Peace River, turning the water milky for 80 miles and killing hundreds of thousands of fish. It was the fourth such spill in a decade.
The question now: Before Mosaic gets a permit to mine, will the corps ensure that the company will take the appropriate steps to protect the Peace River from further harm?
Other federal officials think it should. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Florida have declared the Peace River a priority. And Congress has deemed Charlotte Harbor, which is fed by the river, an estuary of national significance.
The EPA is urging the corps, before issuing any permits to Mosaic, to do an "area-wide Environmental Impact Statement'' that considers mining's "extensive cumulative impacts and changes to these watersheds.'' A loophole in state law blocks DEP from doing this and allows companies to seek piecemeal permits to avoid a broader analysis.
It's clear what the corps must do: Study the full impact of Mosaic's plans on the river, and ultimately Charlotte Harbor. Not just for the environment, but for the people who also depend on the river for drinking water.