News And Updates
Published By: Charlotte Sun
A federal judge Thursday temporarily halted the Mosaic Company from strip mining on its 11,884-acre South Fort Meade Extension tract, in response to a motion for a restraining order in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Sierra Club and two other local environmental organizations.
The suit, filed in U.S. court in Jacksonville, challenges a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, granted June 14, that allows Mosaic to excavate 534 acres of wetlands and 10.7 miles of streams on the site, which is located adjacent to the Peace River near Fort Meade.
The suit alleges that "by almost every measure" under federal environmental regulations, the proposed mine poses impacts significant enough to require the government to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement.
The suit challenges the Corps' finding that the mine poses no significant impacts. Yet one week after the Corps issued the permit, Corps officials confirmed the agency had authorized a regionwide EIS on phosphate mining in the Peace River watershed, the suit states.
The suit also notes that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wetlands branch Chief Thomas Welborn said in an interview with the Sun earlier this month that he had urged the Corps to conduct the EIS before granting the permit. But the project was delayed for so long, neither the Corps nor the EPA felt it could delay any longer, he said.
The suit was filed by the Sierra Club, Manasota-88 and People Protecting the Peace River (3PR). The plaintiffs' attorneys include Sierra chief counsel Pat Gallagher of San Francisco, 3PR attorney Brad Kelsky of Plantation, Fla., and longtime St. Petersburg environmental attorney Thomas Reese.
"We're not surprised the Sierra Club and their local followers challenged the permit of mining," said Russell Schweiss, Mosaic spokesman. "Their opposition to all types of mining is well-known. We are confident their lawsuit will prove to be without merit."
Schweiss said the South Fort Meade Extension project underwent seven years of "intense local, state and federal regulatory scrutiny." The mine plan is "based on science and meets or exceeds all legal and environmental requirements," he said.
"The unfortunate fact here is the Sierra Club places a higher value on their national anti-mining agenda than on the economic well-being of Hardee County and its citizens and the livelihoods of the hundreds of families that rely on our South Fort Meade mine," he said.
Hardee County, when approving a development order for the mine more than two years ago, agreed to a pact that calls for Mosaic to pay $42 million into an economic stewardship fund over the next 10 years.
Bill Lambert, the Hardee County economic development director who crafted the pact, said he was "somewhat perplexed" by the environmental groups' lawsuit.
"Do members of the Sierra Club have jobs?" he said. "Do they consume food? Where is the empirical logic in this process?"
Hardee County officials also were convinced that Mosaic's plan to replace excavated wetlands with carefully designed man-made versions would result in "an outstanding re-created natural system," Lambert said.
The suit claims the permit violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. It states Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties have expressed "grave concerns" with the mine because it will remove natural wetlands from "an Aquatic Resource of National Significance." The suit points out that the Peace River supplies fresh water to the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary and drinking water to 700,000 people.
The successful re-creation of wetlands is "highly uncertain," and even if successful won't be completed for years, the suit notes.
The suit states that the Corps previously concluded that past mining contributed to the loss of 343 miles of streams and 136,000 acres of wetlands, and a decline in the Floridan aquifer of up to 50 feet within the Peace River watershed.
"Our belief is that the need and the legal requirement for an Environmental Impact Statement is really clear," said Percy Angelo of Englewood, Sierra Club Florida's phosphate committee chairman. "In my mind, the decision to conduct the EIS was an admission they should have done one all along."
Dennis Mader, president of 3PR, also pointed out that mining alters both surface and subsurface layers of the ecosystem. He cited the mine's planned 1,500-acre clay settling area, which will be excavated where a high-quality wetland now exists. That will "capture water that would otherwise re-enter the Peace River," he said.
In granting the temporary restraining order, U.S. Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. ruled the suit has a "substantial likelihood of success," and if mining wasn't temporarily halted, Mosaic could cause "irreparable harm."
The restraining order expires July 28. Adams also has scheduled another hearing for July 22 on the plaintiffs' motion for a longer-lasting injunction.