September 24, 2020

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
Mine manager Howie Stoughton
South Fort Meade Mine manager Howie Stoughton and other Mosaic executives take pride in the fact that their business “feeds the world.” In 2006, the company employed about 3,300 Floridians. Critics say the economic benefits may not outweigh the impact the industry has on Florida’s land and water. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

In rural west-central Florida, County Line Road defines the border between Polk and Hardee counties. On the south side, the Hardee landscape is typical Florida heartland: Drought-browned pasture stretches mile after mile, dotted by grazing cows, lonely palms and scrub-oak trees. To the north, the view into Polk County is a jarring contrast: Mile after mile of strip-mined earth in shades of gray, with not a tree or other living thing on the horizon.

How It Works:
Phosphate Mining 101
See an interactive, animated Flash presentation of how phospate mining works here. Learn about the process, including:
Draglines keep digging
draglines dig around the clock
Draglines work around the clock digging up to 15 acres a month. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Blasting into the matrix
water guns blast the matrix
A pit car gun blasts water into piles of matrix at 300 pounds per square inch. [Photo: Cynthia Barnett]
Pumping sand back in
Sand is pumped back in
Sand is pumped back into the phosphate pit to fill in cuts created by mining. Ecologist Kevin Erwin in Fort Myers is among the scientists who say that the soils left behind “can never behave like native soils.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

That moonscape to the north is the South Fort Meade Mine, a phosphate operation owned by the most powerful company that most Floridians have never heard of: Minnesota-based Mosaic Co. The $6-billion fertilizer company is one of only three phosphate firms left in Florida from the 100 that operated during the industry’s heyday in the early 20th century. Formed in 2004 by a merger of Cargill Crop Nutrition and IMC Global (Cargill remains 65% owner), it controls more than 300,000 acres of the state.

Mosaic is the biggest phosphate supplier in the world, and the soaring demand for fertilizer has sent its sales and profits skyrocketing. Mosaic’s share price jumped 345% last year, making it the fastest-rising U.S. large-cap stock.

Florida’s sandy soils are key to that success. The company gets 100% of its phosphate from the state — nearly 10 million tons a year. That amounts to more than half the phosphate sold in the U.S. and 16% of the global market, more than double any competitor’s share.

But the industry is entering its endgame in Florida. After more than a century of mining, Florida’s phosphate deposits are running out. Almost all the remaining mineable reserves in the state are found to the south and west of County Line Road. As the industry’s biggest power player, Mosaic is leading a drive to push mining farther into southwest Florida. But, urbanization and environmental concerns mean mining isn’t as easy as it was when phosphate was a top-three Florida industry that expanded pretty much as it pleased.

For the industry, the question is whether the end of mining comes sooner or later. “Florida is out of business in terms of phosphate by 2040,” says G. Michael Lloyd Jr., research director of the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research. “Mosaic is the final big player. If Mosaic can’t get permission to mine southwest Florida, it will be over sooner.”

For residents of southwest Florida, there’s a second big question: If mining proceeds, will Mosaic do it better than predecessors who scarred Florida’s landscape?

Mother lode

All animal and plant cells require phosphate, which forms the backbone of DNA and stores energy from food and sunlight. Adding phosphate to soil hikes crop and pasture yields in fields sapped by farming. But getting enough to make fertilizer in bulk requires removing it from underground.

Phosphate deposits are concentrated in the United States, China, Morocco and Russia. Historically, Florida has been the industry’s mother lode. A matrix of sand, clay and phosphate rock lies just 15 to 50 feet below ground, most in the so-called Bone Valley region of central Florida. Florida’s railroads and ports helped make the state a key exporter.

Tags: North Central, Agriculture, Environment

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