July 30, 2014

One Last Big Push for Phosphate Mining

South-central Florida's landscape will be shaped in large part by a company many residents have never heard of. Mosaic is the only big player left in Florida's phosphate industry, and it controls more than 300,000 acres.

Cynthia Barnett | 5/1/2008
Mosaic dragline
A Mosaic dragline scours the earth for phosphate as cows graze on a clay settling area. The company posted record third-quarter results last month, with profit surging 12-fold to $520.8 million and sales jumping 68% to $2.1 billion. [Photo: László Bencze/Mosaic]

Starting in the late 1880s, miners began working southward through the heart of Bone Valley. As they dug around Lakeland, Mulberry, Bartow and Plant City, mining became the third-largest industry in the state, behind only tourism and agriculture, for much of the 20th century.

Over time, increasingly efficient production began to deplete central Florida’s reserves. In 1900, it took miners a year to excavate a 15-acre site with picks and shovels. A century later, enormous draglines, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can dig up 15 acres a month.

Mosaic and CF Industry Holdings, a Chicago-based fertilizer company, operate the remaining pits in central Florida and want to continue the industry’s traditional progression southward. If Mosaic lands state and federal permits currently under review, the company will expand the South Fort Meade Mine by 10,880 acres, across County Line Road. It also will begin mining a tract called Altman in Manatee County and another in Hardee called Ona.

The expansion, however, puts mining into conflict with other economic forces. Phosphate’s economic clout has diminished as its share of the state’s GDP has given way to 21st century powerhouses like real estate, construction and service industries. Meanwhile, the growing, urbanized population of southwest Florida asks whether the economic contributions of phosphate are worth its environmental impacts. Confronted with the specter of strip mining, newer residents tend to view it as unsustainable in a fragile place like Florida.

Many company executives are taken aback by what they see as underappreciation of the industry’s value. The South Fort Meade Mine’s manager, Howie Stoughton, is a Canadian whose hometown in the heart of potash-mining country has more drivable miles below ground than above. Stoughton says he was astonished to find that even industrial leaders from the Midwest who’ve retired to Florida “say yes they understand the need for this industry — just not here.”

Opposition to Mosaic’s southwest Florida plans is strongest in counties where no mining will occur: Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota. The three counties, along with the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Authority, have spent close to $15 million in taxpayer money on legal battles that began against Mosaic’s predecessors. Through dozens of challenges, court hearings, rulings and appeals, the counties and water authority have disputed the company’s claims that it can restore mined land [“Like New?” page 90]. And they argue that mining will hurt the quality and quantity of water in the Peace River.

“The Peace River is the No. 1 water supply for the people of southwest Florida and the No. 1 water supply for Charlotte Harbor, which provides a $4.5-billion economic impact to the regional economy,” says Tampa lawyer Ed de la Parte. “That is a bigger economic impact than the phosphate industry itself has on the state of Florida.”

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Tags: North Central, Agriculture, Environment

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