Already ground-zero for phosphate production in the world, Florida will soon see a large expansion of mining activities across the southwest and central portions of the state.
On Wednesday, Mosaic Fertilizer won a court battle with environmental groups opposed to an expansion of the South Pasture Extension mine near the Peace River watershed and three new mines in Central Florida.
U.S. District Court Judge Steven D. Merryday ruled the federal government did not act “arbitrarily” or “capriciously” in approving the mine permits that environmentalists say could damage 57,000 acres wetlands and woodlands.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Manasota-88 Inc., People For Protecting Peace River and Suncoast Waterkeeper filed the lawsuit in March against the Department of the Interior, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They claimed the permits violated the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. Mosaic was not initially named in the suit, but the multi-billion company joined the litigation.
Hannah Connor, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the groups were “disappointed” with the ruling and considering an appeal.
“This is an issue the people of Florida really care about,” she said. “Our state is already on the front line of climate change. Our state already has problems with endangered species and the loss of habitat.”
Mosaic, the largest producer of phosphate in the world, praised the ruling.
“We are pleased that the court’s ruling demonstrated the strength and validity of our South Pasture Extension permit and the environmental review that accompanied it,” said Russell Schweiss, Director of Public Affairs for Mosaic, in a statement. “While we are confident that the Center for Biological Diversity will not be deterred in its efforts to end the thousands of jobs our industry supports, we’re encouraged that the court dismissed their arguments and affirmed our permit.”
The Department of the Interior and the U.S. Corps of Engineers directed questions to the Department of Justice, who declined to comment. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the agency bases all of its decisions on “the best available science.”
But Connor and other environmentalists say the science, and Mosaic’s recent history, show otherwise.
Mosaic operates several open-pit mines that dot the landscape in Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties. The company 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.
The process also creates radioactive phosphogypsum byproduct that requires storage in large pools of acidic wastewater called a gypsum stack.
In 2015, Mosaic reached settlements with the Environmental Protection Agency to settle claims it improperly disposed of these chemicals at sites in Florida and Louisiana. 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. Neighbors near the sinkhole sued the company after the accident, but dropped the suit in June.
With the latest ruling, options are running out for those opposed to expanded phosphate mining.
“We’re still hopeful we can try and make a change and ensure projects moving forward will look more toward public health and the environment,” said Connor, the environmental groups’ attorney. “A lot of organizations are really concerned about their community’s health and their environment moving forward.”