Environmental groups sue feds over Manatee Mosaic phosphate mine permit

Just a month after the Manatee County Commission approved a mine expansion near the Peace River, four Florida environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit to stop the expansion of phosphate mining in the state.

The Center For Biological Diversity, Manasota-88 Inc., People For Protecting Peace River and Suncoast Waterkeeper claim the Department of the Interior, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated environmental regulations by giving permits that enable Mosaic to expand its mining operations. 

You remember Mosaic, right? 

The leading phosphate producer in the world, it operates several open-pit mines that dot the landscape in Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties. Just a drive past one of the company’s properties illustrates the environmental degradation the mining causes.

Mosaic typically uses a dragline to remove 30 feet of vegetation and top soil, extracts the phosphate and transports the ore to a nearby plant. The ore is treated with chemicals to create the synthetic fertilizer that's sold throughout the world.

But the process also creates radioactive phosphogypsum that requires storage in large pools of acidic wastewater called a gypsum stack.

In 2015, Mosiac paid a nearly $2 billion settlement after the Environmental Protection Agency accused the company of improper disposal of the gypsum. Then last year, a huge sinkhole opened up under one of the gypsum stacks, swallowing an estimated 215 million gallons of the wastewater. The company confirmed the wastewater reached the Floridan Aquifer, the state’s main source of drinking water. Mosaic is currently defending against a lawsuit related the accident. (Mosaic is not named in the present suit.)

The groups involved with the latest litigation worry what might happen next, so they’ve teamed up to blast the government’s approval of four mines – the expansion in Manatee County and three new ones in Central Florida -- alleging the federal agencies did not adhere to the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. 

For far too long, the phosphate industry has had its way with ineffective permitting and oversight,” said Justin Bloom, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper, in a statement. “Local and state governments have consistently failed in their duty to protect Florida from this destructive industry, and the federal government has abdicated its duty to uphold our bedrock environmental laws. It’s time to fight to force the feds to do their job.”

The lawsuit alleges the Corps of Engineers rushed through its 2013 Areawide Environmental Impact Statement. For example, the groups say, the report does not consider mine site alternatives to areas bordering streams and rivers. Nor does it account for possible impact to residents’ drinking water.

The environmental groups also contend the mines could harm some of the state’s endangered species, including the grasshopper sparrow and Florida panther. 

In some cases, the lawsuit claims, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s report on the proposed mines uses the exact language found in Mosaic’s application.

The Department of the Interior and the U.S. Corps of Engineers directed questions to the Department of Justice, who declined to comment. A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The suit also comes days after a class action lawsuit was filed against Drummond, a conglomerate that formerly mined phosphate in Polk County, over reclaimed mine land that was developed into homes despite being found to have staggering levels of radiation.

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