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  1. Environment

After zoning decision blocks new mine, phosphate giant gets do-over

A dragline operator uses a 70,000 lb. piece of equipment to extract phosphate from the Mosaic Four Corners mine in Hillsborough County. The fertilizer company is seeking permission to extablish mining operations in DeSoto County. [Times (2010)]
Published May 3

Last summer, phosphate giant Mosaic suffered a crushing defeat when the DeSoto County Commission voted 4-1 to deny its bid to rezone 18,000 acres from agriculture to mining. The vote appeared to thwart a strategy 20 years in the making to shift the company's mining south from its longtime Polk County stronghold.

But the defeat was only temporary. On April 23, in a move one veteran DeSoto politician said she'd never seen before, the County Commission voted to follow a mediator's recommendation and void that rezoning vote, wipe the slate clean and let Mosaic come back and try again in four years.

In the meantime, the company and the county will put on a series of public workshops to explain how Mosaic's operations work and answer any questions the commissioners might have after last year's tumultuous two-day public hearing.

"The decision by the DeSoto County Commission makes it possible for the community to get the answers it needs and work with a community partner committed to supporting the local economy," Mosaic spokeswoman Jackie Barron said in a statement. "It reopens the future opportunity for tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue for local schools and other public services, and strongly supports long-term environmental stewardship."

DeSoto environmental activist Dennis Mader, executive director of People for Protecting Peace River, says the 5-0 commission vote was "a step backward for the county." He's not sure what opponents can do to counter the move, or even whether they will be allowed to speak at the Mosaic workshops.

DeSoto County Commission Chairwoman Judy Schafer said she had never seen a zoning do-over like this before, but acknowledged that the likelihood of a Mosaic lawsuit against the county remains a potent threat.

"If we deny them when it comes back in 2023," she said, "they will keep coming back."

To Schafer, what's at stake is the fear of turning the county she loves into something like Polk County.

"I don't want our county to look like some of these others," she said. She worries about what her grandchildren will say someday: "Our Nana sat on that board and she sure didn't do what's right."

Although phosphate was first discovered in what is now DeSoto County, no one has mined there in a century because the richest deposits were farther north, in Polk. Phosphate miners have spent decades digging up millions of tons of the fertilizer ingredient there, processing it and shipping it out of the Port of Tampa.

But knowing those mines would eventually run out, the company has spent the past 20 years working toward opening or expanding mines in Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties. The effort has required a lot of long-range planning by the company. For instance, it applied for a state permit for the DeSoto mine in 2014, winning approval from the Department of Environmental Protection in 2017.

The federal agency in charge of protecting wetlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saw so many new phosphate mines looming on the horizon that it launched a wide-ranging study of their environmental impact. The study found they would destroy nearly 10,000 acres of wetlands and 50 miles of streams, causing a "significant impact."

But the two-year study — prepared for the federal agency by a consultant paid by the phosphate industry — contended the miners would do such a good job of making up for the damage in 30 or 40 years that in the long run it wouldn't matter. The study did not address what would happen from the short-term damage, nor did it address the multiple scientific studies that have found that man-made wetlands usually fail.

As Mosaic has tried to move into the future, it has had to deal repeatedly with questions about the industry's past damage to the environment. That includes a 1994 accident involving its predecessor, IMC-Agrico, that sent 500 million gallons of slimy, gray water rolling toward the Alafia River, flooding homes, killing livestock, mucking up ponds and contaminating private wells.

More recently, a sinkhole opened in 2016 under a phosphogypsum stack at Mosaic's Mulberry plant near the Hillsborough-Polk county line, sucking 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the aquifer. Mosaic drew statewide criticism for failing to notify the public of what happened for three weeks. Filling in the hole took two years.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com or . Follow @craigtimes.

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