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Digging in: Phosphate producer Mosaic is in it for the long haul

Phosphate provides an element indispensable for the large-scale food production that keeps the world's 7 billion people from starving. For more than a century, U.S. production has centered almost exclusively in one area: 2,000 square miles southeast of Tampa.

Today, after a wholesale shakeout of the phosphate production industry, multiple environmental crises and doomsday predictions that the resource would be soon exhausted, the largest integrated phosphate producer in the world and the last one standing in Florida's "Bone Valley" is expanding.

Mosaic Co. is looking south. It wants to expand two of its existing four mines and bring two more mines on line years down the road.

"We're on a world-class phosphate ore body in Florida," said Neil Beckingham, Mosaic's director of environment, health and safety operations. "I don't think we're in danger of running out of phosphate anytime soon. If you go back 10, 15 years, the predicted lifespan was 40 years of ore reserves left, and now, it's similar; it's roughly 40 years.

"Why is it that 15 years have passed and it's still the same?" he asked. "It's technology, and the ability to process more efficiently."

• • •

Florida has been the epicenter of America's phosphate production since the late 1800s, when phosphate rock was discovered along the Peace River. The skeletons and waste products of creatures living in primeval seas were deposited in Central Florida, an area now rich in fossils and phosphate that became known as Bone Valley.

One hundred companies once mined the rock around Lakeland, Mulberry, Bartow and Plant City, from the era of the pick and shovel through rudimentary steam shovels to today's gargantuan earth-moving machines.

In an extremely cyclical industry operating in global markets, many companies were unable to survive frequent downturns. The number of mining companies slid to about 30 by 1970 and less than a dozen by 2000 as the strong gobbled up the weak.

In 2004, two remaining companies in Central Florida, IMC Global Inc. and the Cargill Crop Nutrition fertilizer businesses of Cargill Inc., merged to form Mosaic.

• • •

Phosphate rock is a nonrenewable resource.

There was widespread speculation about how much is available in existing reserves. A few years ago, economists, sustainability advocates and mining and minerals experts started crunching numbers.

The results were scary.

In 2012, a pair of researchers from Arizona and Australia said in Foreign Policy magazine that humanity faced "widespread famine on a scale that we have not yet experienced."

Jeremy Grantham of the global investment management firm GMO predicted a coming crash of Earth's population from a projected 10 billion to no more than 1.5 billion.

"What happens when these fertilizers run out is a question I can't get satisfactorily answered, and, believe me, I have tried," Grantham wrote in Nature, the international weekly journal of science, in 2012. "Their use must be drastically reduced in the next 20-40 years or we will begin to starve."

"The picture's changed significantly since then," David Vaccari, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., said in an interview last week. Vaccari was among those sounding the alarm — his in Scientific American in 2009.

He said his paper and other doomsday scenarios were based on existing estimates of global reserves, which have been "greatly expanded" since then by agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey. Morocco, in particular, is now thought to be sitting on phosphate reserves that could last hundreds of years, Vaccari said — a fact that wasn't known until recently to many sustainability experts.

Brian Burke, executive director of the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute in Bartow, said the panic over "peak phosphate," the point where peak production has been achieved and begins to decline precipitously, was understandable, but has been discounted.

"It's like any scientific discussion," he said. "The conversation went back to more reasonable interpretations. Once these guys start communicating, the information they base their predictions on gets a lot better. We're not running out of phosphate."

• • •

Mosaic goes before the Manatee County Commission next month seeking a 4,341-acre expansion of its existing 3,029-acre Wingate mine. The permitting process for a 7,513-acre expansion of the 15,705-acre South Pasture mine in Hardee County is also under way.

The company is also planning two new mines: Ona, with 22,423 acres, also in Hardee; and DeSoto, 18,287 acres in the county of the same name. Mosaic declined to speculate on timetables for approvals or when dirt gets turned.

When mining does start, it won't be pretty.

Enormous, 5-story-tall earth-moving machines known as draglines remove a 10- to 50-foot layer of soil known as the overburden. A "matrix" of phosphate ore, clay and sand is exposed, and that mixture is pulverized into a slurry and sent via pipelines to a nearby plant that separates out the phosphate.

What remains at that point is a wasteland.

Groups such as the Sierra Club, ManaSota-88, People for Protecting Peace River and Protect Our Watersheds try to limit the environmental impact. They also argue that mining should be slowed down or the United States could run out of phosphate and become dependant on foreign countries.

The groups have sued to stop mine expansion in the past, and they aren't ruling it out for the future.

"If you can't convince your local county commissioners to slow down and ask for additional studies to be done, that leaves the legal option as the only option that's available," said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88. "It would be nice to stop the mining process, put it on pause, just have an overall moratorium to get a picture of the cumulative impacts that the mining industry is having on Florida."

There have been some significant effects.

Two dozen mounds of phosphogypsum, the slightly radioactive byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing, rise over Central Florida. Some of the mounds tower 200 feet and cover 500 acres. In a century, no one has figured out a viable use for the product.

In 1994, a 180-foot-deep sinkhole opened in a "gyp stack" near Mulberry, draining acidic holding water into the aquifer that supplies drinking water to millions of residents in the Tampa Bay area.

In 1997, 50 million gallons of contaminated water poured from a retention pond into the Alafia River, killing hundreds of acres of vegetation and millions of fish. In 2004, hurricane-whipped winds churned waves of water over a pile in Riverview, spilling 65 million gallons of acidic wastewater into Tampa Bay and destroying large numbers of crabs, shrimp and fish, 150 acres of mangroves and 22 acres of sea grass.

Last year, Mosaic settled a federal lawsuit by agreeing to establish a $1.8 billion trust fund to properly treat, store and dispose of an estimated 60 billion pounds of hazardous waste at three phosphate manufacturing facilities in Florida and one in Louisiana. At the time, Compton called it "a small drop in the bucket of what the industry is doing to the state of Florida."

• • •

At the north fork of the Manatee River west of State Road 37, a serene scene greets visitors. Past a locked gate and through a winding path leading through scrub and pine flatwoods stands a wooden platform popular among birders and environmentalists.

Bart Arrington, Mosaic's manager of mine permitting for Manatee County, recalls one of his co-workers asking a student group if they thought Mosaic could ever get a permit to mine the 500 acres of wetlands sprawled in front of the platform.

"They said, 'Oh, absolutely not. Never could do it,' " Arrington said. "He said, 'Well, you're too late.' "

The 1,600 acres of wetlands and forest had been mined from the mid 1990s to the early 2000s, and has now been dubbed NFM1, for the North Fork Manatee 1 reclamation site.

It wasn't until 1975 that the government began requiring mining companies to reclaim the hacked-up moonscapes they left behind when phosphate ore is mined out. Wetlands are required to be reclaimed on an acre-for-acre, type-for-type basis.

When regulators approve a mining permit, they also approve a reclamation plan. It's a years-long process: The federal permit file for Mosaic's South Fort Meade mine expansion in 2012 encompassed more than 250,000 pages.

Mining opponents say that in reality, there's no way to restore mines to their pre-mining state.

"It takes decades, if not centuries, for ecological succession to get these mines to where they were before," Compton said. "We've always contended you can't replace some of these systems that are unique to the state of Florida."

Amid the mass consolidation of phosphate miners over the decades, Mosaic inherited some pre-1975 property that had not been reclaimed. One of those former mines is now the Streamsong golf resort and spa north of Fort Green, owned and developed by the phosphate company.

Golf course architects designed the holes around the craggy characteristics of the abandoned mine. Golf Digest, Golf Week, USA Today and other publications have ranked the two Streamsong courses among the best in the country.

Mosaic's efforts to return mined land to productive uses or natural landscapes go beyond federal, state and local regulations, said spokeswoman Jackie Barron.

"Companies thought reclamation would be the death of the industry. Now it's what we hang our hat on," she said. "It's where we've carved out a name for ourselves in so many ways. This work is leaving a legacy."

Contact Jerome R. Stockfisch at Follow @JStockfischTBT.