The Battle Over Horse Creek

Strip mines would deface one of the last undeveloped watersheds in west-central Florida, in order to make fertilizer.

click to enlarge The Battle Over Horse Creek - JH PETE CARMICHAEL
The Battle Over Horse Creek

Horse Creek is a little-known, small and wonderful stream, with headwaters located in the so-called "four corners," the place where Hillsborough, Hardee, Manatee and Polk counties meet.

The creek meanders almost 40 miles through several counties to meet the Peace River. Most of its length, the creek is shaded by tall, twisted oaks draped with resurrection fern and Spanish moss. Except for a short, ditched portion, Horse Creek twists and turns in a natural scenic path. While at places it is unexpectedly wide, upstream in normal waters you could wade across it, and near the Peace a child could toss a stone to the other side. Its waters are usually clear and shallow, and swimming fishes are easily seen contrasted with the sandy bottom.

It is quiet along Horse Creek, except for the buzz of the insects, the call of the birds, and the wind going through the oaks. Largely rural, the land along its banks is like most of Florida was 50 years ago, before humans swamped the Sunshine State. Large lines of bobwhite quail pass through pastures and back yards and call out loudly at night. Deer wander down to the creek to drink, where otters play and wading birds fish. At night, the stars are revealed above the creek without sky glow, the incoming burn of a meteorite is easily spotted, and there are no emergency sirens raging as ambulances and police swarm about the city. There is just the quietude of a bubbling stream.

While most Floridians have never heard of Horse Creek, it is the center of a raging human controversy, which will determine the future of phosphate mining in Florida. Permitting of three phosphate mines in Manatee and Hardee counties has been inching its way through the permitting process, in one case for almost five years.

People who care about Horse Creek are worried about the possible effects of phosphate mining around it. Potential spills from clay settling areas, created in the process of separating phosphate from the earth, could wash down it. Mining could create potential changes in hydrology. Farther downstream, Charlotte County is worried about the impact on its rich estuary, Charlotte Harbor.

There is much going on you can't see, whispered about and defined by the word arbitration. There are legal hearings in progress. Not privy to the arbitration, one can only hope for the best.

Both sides have been spinning their own story. If one side said white, the other said not so dark. Both true statements, but the spin is harder to unravel.

Currently, 107,000 acres in Hardee County are owned, leased, or optioned by the phosphate industry for mining. This is about one-quarter of the county. Additional acres lie in DeSoto County.

With those combined acres, the phosphate industry has a long profitable future in Florida. Without them, time is running out on Florida land economical to mine. Some company clocks are ticking quicker.

Hardee County's newly created mining department thinks more land is at stake. They project as much as 160,000-plus acres might eventually be mined, a third of their county. The industry says that's too big a number. Some land is regulated wetlands, they say; other areas are set aside for wildlife corridors. Opponents want the number high. The industry wants the number low. Both are telling the truth, based on certain assumptions. Which assumptions will turn out to be true? Only time and permitting will tell. Or maybe, arbitration and legal hearings.

Whomever you listen to, it's a lot of land.CulpabilityBefore a writer weaves words affecting an industry which directly employs more than 7,000 Floridians and affects the health of our environment, readers have a right to know something about him. Thus I vet myself as someone who owns mining stocks, and who as a published writer and photographer has helped to destroy trees while inadvertently encouraging the use of messy chemicals, in producing both film and paper.

For 17 years I was in business, selling people things they didn't need at a price they couldn't afford. When my father died in 1995, I drove to California and became a tree hugger. Somewhere there is a photo of me with my arms around a redwood, planting a firm kiss. Before the business, I was in the Army a spell, including a tour in Vietnam, which turned me from a Goldwater conservative into a McGovern liberal, putting me on the receiving end of two of the largest and most diametrically opposed presidential landslides in history.

Since 1995, I have been on a probationary period of on-the-job training with Florida. I have hiked its trails, biked its paths, paddled its rivers and coasts, slept on it, and written three books about La Florida. I have edited other books on Florida's spiders, insects and fishes, and am guilty of a number of articles glutting Florida magazines. I like my work, it is what I was always meant to do, and I hope it is of value to others. The most important thing to me is not to say anything that is incorrect. When my father died, I decided it was time to do what I wanted, to make up for a large waste of my time in the short space of life left.


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