The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing a sweeping assessment of the environmental impacts of Florida phosphate mining in response to pleas from environmentalists and politicians concerned about the health of their state's waterways.
The corps' environmental impact statement (EIS) will examine the Central Florida Phosphate District, whose 1 million or so acres sprawl across several counties east of Tampa Bay. The area is so rich in phosphates -- critical ingredients in fertilizers and pesticides -- that experts say it will take decades for mining companies to exhaust it.
"It's the biggest producing region in the United States," Stephen Jasinski, a phosphate expert with U.S. Geological Survey, said in an interview.
And assessing the area's environmental impact figures to be a complicated endeavor, but the Army Corps, which formally announced the study earlier this year, is aiming to complete the study by next summer.
"We have what we call an aggressive schedule," said project manager John Fellows in an interview. "Many of the other agencies we are working with are skeptical because it is a tremendous endeavor. It's just a very long process."
Several new mining projects proposed for the phosphate district, including an extension of the South Pasture Mine by Illinois-based CF Industries Holdings Inc. and the Ona Mine by Minnesota-based Mosaic Co., the U.S. industry leader in phosphate production and by far the largest presence in Florida.
The Ona Mine, which covers thousands of acres in Hardee County, has been stuck in the permitting process for years, and it was a major reason for the Army Corps' areawide EIS.
The EIS represents a shift in how the corps addresses phosphate mining. The agency previously reviewed mining projects case by case, preparing environmental assessments for each project. Environmentalists found the case-by-case approach lacking, saying it provided limited oversight of phosphate mining.
"It's such a huge powerful industry in Florida," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida. "It has never been adequately regulated."
The Army Corps' Fellows said his agency opted to go with the EIS in response to environmental concerns.
"As time progressed and there became greater concern about the impact of phosphate mining, these became very large environmental assessments," Fellows said, calling the assessments "books" on impacts of individual mines.
Companies have been mining phosphate in Florida since the late 1800s, but regulations were limited until the 1970s, said Jim Cooper, an industry watchdog who leads the Placida, Fla.-based environmental group, Protect Our Watersheds.
"It has been only in the last 30 years or so that people have been paying attention," he said.
Cooper said phosphate-mining oversight has improved safeguards along with a willingness by environmental groups and even local governments to fight mining projects in court. For example, the permit for Mosaic's South Fort Meade mine extension is on hold pending court review after a challenge from environmental groups.
Environmentalists say they are concerned that pollution from phosphate mining could threaten the Peace River, which flows more than 100 miles from the mining district to the Charlotte Harbor Estuary, and the Myakka River watershed. Ruin the waters, conservationists say, and a regional economy based on fisheries and tourism will shrivel.
Phosphates are strip-mined and separated from sand and clay. As phosphates are taken for processing, sand tailings are stored for reclamation and the clay slurry is pumped to large settling areas. Environmentalists say years of mining have reduced river flows and fish populations.
"It's like a moonscape," environmentalist Young said. "The industry has been ripping and tearing at Florida for a very long time. They have already done an amazing amount of damage."
Environmentalists and area residents also worry about radiation released by phosphate processing, which yields large quantities of phosphogypsum -- mainly calcium sulfate -- that is stored in stacks that can cover hundreds of acres, according to a U.S. EPA fact sheet. That fact sheet adds that the risks associated with the stacks are "in line with acceptable risk practices."
Herschel Morris, phosphate operations vice president for CF Industries, takes issue with activists painting his industry as destructive to the environment.
"We've been doing a really good job of reducing our water flows, water impacts, environmental impacts," he said in an interview, adding that government oversight had made the industry more conscious about limiting the effect of mining.
Morris is confident in the industry's reclamation efforts and new technologies that he said allow miners to return the land to "pristine" condition. He also touted a program to collect and treat rainwater and inject it into the aquifer.
"Everything that we touch, that we mine, we have to reclaim by law," Morris said, "You might tell me, you know, this is so beautiful, so pristine."
Industry claims about the quality of reclamation efforts may never convince environmentalists who say strip mining of any type causes permanent damage to the land, its waterways and surrounding ecosystem.
Cooper said he does not want to stop mining altogether but thinks mining companies are being greedy about how much material they want to extract and from where. "What you've got is what we consider to be overreaching by the industry," he said.
Cooper worries about mining creeping closer to farming areas and waterways.
"Let's come up with a plan that works best so the miners can achieve their profits," he said. "At the same time, they protect the harbor, make the harbor sustainable."
'You can't grow a crop without it'
Seven of the 12 U.S. phosphate mines are in Florida. There are others in North Carolina, Utah and Idaho, USGS said. Other significant reserves are found in China and parts of Northern Africa, with the largest deposits being in Morocco and western Sahara.
Phosphorus is vital to agriculture.
"You can't grow a crop without it," said Kathy Mathers, vice president of public affairs for the Fertilizer Institute, in an interview. "It's basically a fertilizer that's in demand around the world. In order for us to continue to grow and feed a growing population, we need to continue using fertilizer."
Still, advocates and residents who live near phosphate mining operations wonder about the tradeoffs. Another proposed phosphate project in Idaho, Monsanto Co.'s 768-acre Blackfoot Bridge Mine, is also causing environmental concerns, including selenium pollution (Land Letter, March 31).
"We have not opposed development of mines if they do them right," Marv Hoyt, Idaho director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said in an interview. "They're close, but they're not there yet."
The phosphate industry is increasingly concerned that permit delays and litigation, especially in Florida, is making it too hard for them to mine the resource and meet demand from domestic sources.
Both industry leaders and environmentalists, meanwhile, are pinning their hopes on the Army Corps' EIS.
"I think it can be a good thing," CF Industries' Morris said. "It's going to better define the effects of phosphate mining and how we impact the environment."
But environmentalist Cooper is hoping the EIS forces the imposition of tighter regulations aimed at reducing polluted runoff. His wish: "that we'll have better setbacks from the rivers and streams that are affected."
"So if there is a problem," he said, "it does not create an issue that we can't live with."