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Manatee County Phosphate Mine Expansion Up For Vote

The first hint that Mosaic's Wingate Mine is no ordinary phosphate mine comes when you drive down a dirt road and see a large dredge boat listing in a pond that can barely contain it. Drive a few more minutes, and prepare to board a tugboat in a huge artificial lake.

"Right now, we're standing on the phosphate dredge, and they currently have the ladder up in the elevated position to perform the service," said Jason Berry, production manager at this mine, on the far eastern fringe of Manatee County.

It's also the site of a plan to more than double the size of a phosphate mine in Manatee County comes before commissioners on Thursday. 

The giant cutter is above water, as workers change a giant drill bit.

"It typically takes us one hour to check the cutter teeth, check all the oil levels, grease flanges, things like that," to make sure the dredge is ready to work another 24 hours," he said.

Right now, they're mining 68 feet below the surface of the water.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Inside the control room of the dredger

Come back in a few years, and this spot won't even be a lake. As the dredge moves east, it pumps the mined material to a giant washer two miles away. Sand tailings and anything that's not phosphate comes is then pumped into the other end of the lake, displacing the water. That's where the old dredge sits, in a small pool, waiting to be scrapped.

"This lake will actually just move into the Wingate East property," said Bartley Arrington, the mine's land manager. "That overburden dredge pumps in behind where they've already mined, and that tailings pipe out there is filling in the back side of that lake."

Thursday, Arrington will tell Manatee County Commissioners Mosaic's reasons for wanting to expand to what they call Wingate East. At 4,000 acres, it add and more than double to the current mine's roughly 3,000 acres.

"It's necessary to continue to mine an economically important resource. We have existing facilities we need to keep in operation," Arrington said. "There's certainly is a demand for what we do to help feed the world, and there's certainly some economic benefits to being in Manatee County - or any county that we're in - that the county realizes as economic benefits."

The dredging would continue east to Duette Road, with more traditional draglines -basically giant cranes with scoops - mining the earth to the west, to the Hardee County line. Mosaic estimates the mine expansion will pump $16 million in property taxes into the county over the life of the mine.

But to people like Glenn Compton, it's about more than just money. He calls the location of the Wingate Mine an "historic mistake."

"Of all the places in Florida, this is where you don't want to strip mine, said Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, a regional environmental advocacy group. Manasota-88 is one of four environmental groups that announced plans to sue two federal agencies over approvals of more than 50,000 acres for phosphate mining across the region, known as "Bone Valley."

"It's in the headwaters of the Myakka River, which is one of the few Wild and Scenic rivers that we have, not only in the state of Florida, but the nation," Compton said."It's also in the headwaters of the Peace River, which is the drinking water supply for Charlotte and Sarasota counties, and many others."

He said he is especially concerned that the mine wants to build another clay settling area, which is  basically a huge lake with an earthen dam where mined byproducts are pumped.

"We don't call them clay setting areas. We call them toxic slime ponds, because they have heavy metals, they have arsenic, they have acid," he said. "And if the dams were to break on them, they would annihilate - and that's not too strong of a word - they would annihilate everything downstream for miles."

Mosaic officials say they take special precautions so that doesn't happen, regularly checking the earthen berms around the settling areas. But Compton notes Mosaic couldn't do anything about a giant sinkhole that opened recently under a gypsum stack at its New Wales phosphate plant, a few miles north, near Mulberry. Millions of gallons of contaminated water sank into the aquifer.

Mosaic said it took steps to make sure neighboring wells in Polk County were not contaminated. But Compton says it's not worth the risk for an industry that contributes a lot less to the county's economy than agriculture and tourism.

He said he believes land will be permanently damaged, which is now home to rare species, including wood storks, Eastern indigo snake, crested caracara, Florida scrub jay and bald eagles. And if this expansion is approved, Compton thinks it would open the door for other mine expansions in Manatee, Sarasota, Hardee and DeSoto counties, as the phosphate industry moves south from its traditional home in Polk County. 

Mosaic officials released a statement defending their projects, saying they undergo rigorous screening.

"The federal permit was issued following the most comprehensive phosphate mine permitting process in the history of the industry, and comply with all local, state and federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act," it read.

The final say is up to Manatee County Commisioners. Both the Planning Commission and county staffers already have come out in favor of the rezoning. 

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
The dredger cutter is being lowered into the lake

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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