Greens Sue Over Phosphate Mine Expansion

(CN) – Four Florida-based environmental groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hoping to stop a large expansion of phosphate mining in the state.

The Center For Biological Diversity, Manasota-88 Inc., People For Protecting Peace River and Suncoast Waterkeeper joined to file the federal lawsuit in Tampa, claiming the agencies violated environmental rules by approving four phosphate mining permits that could destroy more than 57,000 acres of wetlands and woodlands.

The permits allow the phosphate giant Mosaic to expand the South Pasture Extension mine near the Peace River watershed and build three new mines in Central Florida.

“Florida has already lost so much to the phosphate industry — hundreds of thousands of acres of natural landscape and habitat, unadulterated freshwater and healthy biodiversity,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “This newest proposal is the most foolhardy yet, calling for the utter destruction of an additional 50,000 acres of Florida habitat and creation of millions of tons of radioactive hazardous waste that will be stored in the state.”

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.

Phosphate mining is big business in Florida and Mosaic’s open pit mines dot the landscape in Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties. The mine 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 sold throughout the world.

But the process also creates radioactive phosphogypsum that requires storage in large pools of acidic wastewater called a gypsum stack. This water — a cocktail of chemicals and minerals with low levels of radiation – poses a risk for animals and humans.

In 2015, Mosaic paid $2 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency in a settlement over improper disposal of these chemicals. Last year, a 45-foot-wide 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 Florida 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.)

Environmental groups don’t want a repeat of the past, so they’ve teamed up against the federal government’s approval of the proposed mines, alleging the federal agencies did not adhere to the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“The Corps and Service have a solemn obligation to uphold and give meaning to these laws,” the complaint states. “When deciding whether to approve phosphate mining activities in jurisdictional waterways, Congress and the public trust demand that the Corps and Service meaningfully comply with the law by observing statutory and regulatory conditions and rigorously analyzing environmental impacts.”

The complaint charges the Corps’ did not properly review Mosaic’s proposal in its 2013 Areawide Environmental Impact Statement. Among other points of contention, the report does not consider mine site alternatives to areas bordering streams and rivers.

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

Although reports prepared by the government agencies expect animals will move to more wild areas, critics argue the mines border each other and may leave the creatures no place to go. The lawsuit also questions the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to conduct a “cumulative impact” on species from all the proposed mines. In some cases, the complaint states, the FWS used the exact language found in Mosaic’s application for their final report.

Although federal law requires Mosaic to mitigate damage through reclaiming mine sites, there are no independent studies showing ecosystems return after mining.

“These practices rely on technologies that strip away and disfigure the land and its water systems only to replace them many years later with an artificial veneer that, while perhaps superficially convincing, is functionally deficient,” the complaint states. “Once destroyed, the complex natural functions of these lands and waters are forever lost, and the communities and wildlife that define this region may never return.”