Study: phosphate mine expansion will cause 'significant' wetlands damage

Published May 6, 2013

Creating three phosphate mines and expanding a fourth will destroy nearly 10,000 acres of wetlands and 50 miles of streams, causing a "significant impact," according to a study prepared to guide permitting by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But the two-year study —- prepared for the corps by a consultant paid by the phosphate industry — contends the miners would do such a good job of making up for the damage, through a process called mitigation, that the impact will not be all that noticeable.

"Without mitigation, a lot of the effects would be significant — on wetlands, on groundwater, on surface water," said corps senior project manager John Fellows, who works in the Tampa office. "No question about it, mining is an impactive industry."

The report is so vague about just what kind of mitigation would make up for such widespread destruction in Hillsborough, Hardee, Manatee, Polk and De Soto counties that Fellows called it "a hand-wave" at the subject. He said that was all the law required.

Both Mosaic and CF Industries, the two phosphate companies that want federal permits for about 42,000 acres of new and expanded mining, issued statements saying they welcomed the report.

"It recognizes that we currently reclaim every acre we mine," said Mosaic spokeswoman Martha Monfried.

But environmental experts who have studied prior attempts by the phosphate industry to replace wetlands destroyed by mining say it has generally done a less than stellar job.

"Much of the work they were doing was not replacing the functions and values that were supplied by the native landscape —- not just the wetlands, but the uplands and groundwater, too," said Kevin Erwin, a Fort Myers ecological consultant who has examined more than 100 of the industry's attempts at replacing marshes, bogs and swamps for court cases.

"Their track record has been dismally poor," agreed Brian Winchester, a Gainesville environmental consultant who reviewed 30 industry mitigation wetlands for court cases. He and Erwin both testified on behalf of environmental groups challenging state mining permits.

When Erwin checked wetlands created on old phosphate land, he found that instead of the patchwork of swamps, marshes and bogs of varying depths that had been there before, attracting a variety of wildlife, virtually everything built turned out to be deep marshes, with standing water 2 to 4 feet deep. Winchester said most bore little resemblance to natural wetlands.

Still, Fellows expressed confidence in the industry's ability to come up with mitigation to satisfy his permitting staff. In the past, he said, "There have been successes and there have been problems, but I think the problems have been addressed and moving forward we have the assurance that they will be successful."

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The only two mitigation-related studies cited by the study were performed either by employees or contractors working for Mosaic or its predecessor, IMC-Agrico.

Environmental activists who had been calling for the corps to conduct a full-fledged study of the impact of phosphate mining —- past, present and future — expressed disappointment at both the limited nature of the report and its findings.

"They seem to have basically decided that there are no impacts," said Percy Angelo of the Sierra Club's phosphate committee.

Fellows said the goal of the study prepared by engineering firm CH2M Hill was only to "identify the impacts and identify whether they can be mitigated," leaving the details to be worked out once the corps staff draws up permits.

Although he said the corps relied heavily on CH2M Hill's experts in composing the report, he had no idea how much the study cost. Monfried said it cost "several million dollars," but said she could not be more specific.

The notice about the study was published in the Federal Register on Friday. The corps will take public comment for 30 days before finalizing it. The next step is preparing the four permits, Fellows said.

If the corps approves the permits, the companies say they will create 6,000 jobs and boost the economy by $29 million.

Most fertilizer in the United States comes from phosphate mined in Florida and shipped through the Port of Tampa. However, Florida's phosphate industry, which once boasted 100 companies working in an area known as Bone Valley, has shrunk to just three employing about 4,000 people. Its historic Polk County mines are nearing the end of their life, and the industry must develop new mines to the south to survive in Florida.

Craig Pittman can be reached at