Lee one-sided on mining, firm says

Lee one-sided on mining, firm says

A company planning to operate a phosphate mine in Hardee County says Lee County officials have heard only part of the story in opposing the project.

“None of the commissioners have ever contacted Mosaic,” said David Townsend, spokesman at Plymouth, Minn.-based Mosaic Co., which proposes to mine 4,197 acres of a 20,000-acre property known as the Ona mine. They only heard from one side. We just wish they could have had all of the facts so they could make an informed decision.”

County commissioners last week decided to give $150,000 in taxpayer money to the Sierra Club to challenge federal permits for the Hardee County mine.

Worried about the mine’s impact on water quality, Lee has partnered with Charlotte and Sarasota counties in recent years to challenge state phosphate mining permits. Commissioners have put nearly $2 million toward the $11 million effort.

Phosphate is a natural mineral used to make such products as water-soluble fertilizer, animal-feed supplements, cola, china and eyeglasses. The United States is the world’s top producer of phosphate ore. Central Florida has the nation’s most abundant phosphate reserve.

But certain phosphate mining practices can negatively affect rivers, downstream estuaries and beaches and kill aquatic life, said Roland Ottolini, director of Lee Natural Resources.

The mines can scar the landscape, destroy wildlife habitats, alter water flow and quality and harm drinking water supplies, said Pat Gallagher, Sierra Club director of environmental law.

Still, Townsend argues that Lee officials should have heard Mosaic’s side before opposing the company’s proposal.

“We regret Lee County chose to commit taxpayer dollars to a Sierra Club legal initiative without having conversation with Mosaic that may have alleviated the need for it,” Townsend said. “There is an awful lot of misinformation about the Ona mine permit and phosphate mining that is perpetuated by its opponents.”

Sierra’s challenge is not to stop Mosaic from mining phosphate ore ”” an essential natural mineral with no synthetic substitute ”” but to ensure it’s done responsibly, Gallagher said.

Townsend contends that Mosaic restores wetlands and wildlife habitats, and frequently improves them.

Phosphate companies for the past four years have sought to operate the Ona mine. The permit process is vigorous, and it’s critical to mining companies because the work can’t start without them.

Challenges by Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties to Mosaic’s state permits are pending. Mosaic’s federal permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still in draft form.

The Corps has drafted an environmental impact statement supporting approval of the mine.

But Gallagher said both the permit application and the draft environmental impact statement “suffer from numerous flaws,” including:

Ӣ A failure to account for the significant degradation of the Peace River-Charlotte Harbor watershed. Ӣ A failure to show that the least disruptive alternative is being pursued.

Ӣ A reliance on unproven and highly controversial mitigation techniques.

Townsend denies such claims.

“There is just no basis of fact,” he said. “Three judges have ruled that phosphate mining will not have an adverse effect on the Peace River’s water quantity or quality.”

The federal permit can’t be issued until the state permitting process is finished. The state environmental agency has recommended approval of the final state permit application, which Lee and Charlotte counties are appealing.

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