(CN) - The world's largest producer of potash and phosphate fertilizer can proceed with plans to greatly expand mining operations in Florida, a federal judge ruled.
In his ruling, which was issued Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday dismissed claims brought by four environmental groups who alleged the expansion of an existing mine and creation of three others would significantly damage 57,000 acres wetlands and woodlands in Southwest and Central Florida.
Together the Center for Biological Diversity, Manasota-88 Inc., People for Protecting Peace River and Suncoast Waterkeeper challenged federal permits given to Mosaic Fertilizer, claiming the approvals did not adhere to the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
“We’re obviously disappointed by the ruling and considering our options for appeal,” said Hannah Connor, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “A lot of organizations are really concerned about their community’s health and their environment moving forward.”
Mosaic was not originally named in the suit, since a predecessor company requested and was awarded the permits, but later became a party to the litigation.
“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 Mosaic spokesman Russell Schweiss by e-mail. “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.”
Minnesota-based Mosaic's largest phosphate mines and processing plants operate in Florida. Its open pit mines dot the landscape in five Florida counties.
The Fortune 500 company wants to expand one mine near the Peace River watershed near Sarasota, Florida, and build three new mines in Central Florida.
But environmental groups contend the mining process drastically alters the ecology of the area.
According to court documents, 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 sold throughout the world.
But the plaintiffs claim 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, the environmentalists claim.
In 2015, Mosaic reached two settlements with the Environmental Protection Agency to resolve claims about hazardous waste management practices at eight sites in Florida and Louisiana. The company agreed to pay an $8 million fine. It also committed $630 million which will grow to $1.8 billion to support the long-term care of phosphogypsum stacks on those sites. Mosaic also agreed to fund environmental projects and capital improvements.
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.
Residents of the area immediately sued the company, but dropped the lawsuit in June.
The environmental groups said they filed their lawsuit because they did not want a repeat of the past.
The original complaint claimed federal regulators did not properly review Mosaic’s proposal in its 2013 area-wide 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 worried the mines would harm some of the state’s most endangered species, including the Florida panther.
Although reports prepared by the regulators said they expect wild animals will move to more isolated areas, critics argue the mines border each other and may leave the creatures no place to go.
The lawsuit also questioned 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 stated, the FWS used the exact language found in Mosaic’s application for their final report.
The judge, however, agreed with the agencies’ attorneys who argued the environmental groups could not show the federal government acted arbitrarily or capriciously in approving the mine permits.
The defend Department of the Interior and the U.S. Corps of Engineers directed questions to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Phil Kloer said the agency was pleased with the ruling.
“We continue to try to base all of our decisions on the best available science,” he said via e-mail.