Mine Plan Would Erase Wetlands: PCS Phosphates Proposal Threatens 2,500 Acres, the Most Ever in N.C

Mine Plan Would Erase Wetlands: PCS Phosphates Proposal Threatens 2,500 Acres, the Most Ever in N.C

A massive Beaufort County strip-mining operation wants to expand its extraction of phosphate ore in one of the state’s most environmentally fragile areas.

The proposal by PCS Phosphate, if approved, would represent the single largest destruction of wetlands permitted in the state — 2,500 acres including the headwaters of seven creeks near the Pamlico River.

The rich deposit of black phosphate rock, left by ancient oceans and buried 100 feet beneath the surface, has been extracted from the site by various companies for about 40 years. PCS has worked the mine since 1995 to get phosphate for fertilizer and for use in food additives. In food, it’s turned into phosphoric acid — a flavor enhancer in such products as Coca-Cola, jellies and vegetable oil.

In a 300-acre canyon, huge cranes with buckets the size of two-car garages scoop ore mixed with sand and clay. The mining grinds on 24 hours a day, every day and consumes about 200 acres a year. At the current rate, PCS expects to exhaust the deposit it’s working by 2011.

It is seeking permission from federal and state agencies to extend its activities to nearby land, much of which is covered with marshes and creeks.

“One of the things we absolutely need is the ability to continue our mining operation to provide phosphate-based fertilizer,” said Tom Regan, president of PCS Phosphate. “It’s very unique to Aurora because of the high quality of phosphate rock here.”

Representatives of PCS and government agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and various state offices, have been discussing alternatives. The corps, which must approve any disturbance of wetlands, will issue an environmental study of the proposal this fall, then seek public comment.

The mining plan likely will draw interest from environmental groups, commercial fishermen and nearby residents, who sometimes complain about plant emissions that smell like rotten eggs.

They’ll also hear from community officials who support the plant as the county’s largest employer, providing more than 1,000 jobs. The company is a division of Canada’s Potash Corp., one of the world’s largest fertilizer producers.

The company’s preference is to mine 3,600 acres between its current site and South Creek. It is one of three tracts totaling 15,100 acres with 6,379 acres of wetlands that the company is considering mining. PCS officials say the area near South Creek holds the highest quality ore and would be least costly to extract.

But it also contains the largest amount of wetlands.

Environmental groups say an 8,686-acre tract south of N.C. 33 is preferable because it would disturb fewer acres of wetlands.

“That is a far less ecologically damaging alternative,” said David McNaught, a policy analyst with Environmental Defense. “That is the alternative they should pursue.”

PCS says the ore is deeper at that site and would cost $30 million a year more to extract and transport, making it economically impractical at present. They say it might be a viable site in several decades if the price of phosphate increases as worldwide supplies are depleted.

The Clean Water Act, the federal law passed in the 1970s that protects wetlands, requires agencies to identify alternatives that have the least environmental damage that are economically feasible.

Historically, North Carolina had about 11 million acres of wetlands concentrated primarily in Eastern North Carolina. But more than 5 million acres were drained and converted to farmland or other uses before wetlands were protected by law. In recent years, the state has permitted the destruction of 200 to 300 acres a year for road building and other development.

Wetlands serve an important role in nature. They provide habitat for waterfowl and nurseries for fish. They filter pollution and recharge groundwater, and they provide storage for floodwaters.

“The Clean Water Act doesn’t prohibit the work,” said Tom Walker, project manager for the Corps. “It prohibits the work without a permit. Whether or not we issue the permit is the question.”

More than a decade ago, PCS applied to mine an area that encompassed 3,069 acres of wetlands, including much of the land it’s again seeking to dig. The permit it received in 1997 excluded more than half of the wetland acreage it sought to mine.

“The message is: We may not approve everything they apply for,” said John Dorney, a wetlands supervisor for the state Division of Water Quality, which also must approve any plan. “What they’ve applied for is the largest permitted wetlands fill in the state.”

Michael Henries, 38, a commercial fisherman who works South Creek for crabs and flounder, paused from folding a flounder net in the stern of his boat. He shook his head at the proposal to mine through the headwaters of creeks flowing into South Creek.

“The water has taken about all it can stand,” Henries said. “We’ve abused it enough. It can’t take any more.”

Hunter Turnage, 44, a Raleigh cable television salesman, has a house across the river from the PCS mine. He is one of several people who have written letters to the state complaining about the odor when the wind blows from the south.

“If you don’t want to smell it, you shut up the windows and turn on the air conditioner,” Turnage said. “It’s something you just deal with. … I kept thinking one day they would run out of areas to mine. I think they’ll stay there forever — as long as they get continued rights to destroy the wetlands.”

PCS officials say they recognize the consequences of phosphate mining on wetlands. They point to a 2,000-acre farm south of Aurora that has been restored as a wetlands forest to offset damage from continuing mining activities. When wetland destruction is unavoidable, companies must restore other areas to offset the loss. The farmland has standing water and cypress trees.

“We have restored 2,900 acres of wetlands,” said Jeff Furness, an environmental scientist with PCS Phosphate. “That is to make up for the impacts the mine has had on wetlands.”

Furness said the company is actively searching for land to return as wetlands to make up for damage from anticipated future mining.

Copyright (c) 2006, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

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