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Phosphate processing plants in the greater Tampa Bay region have caused some of Florida's worst environmental disasters. Accidents like the spill at the former Piney Point plant fill the history books in Florida.

DeSoto County residents worry about proposed phosphate mine

On Tuesday, the phosphate giant Mosaic will be represented at another in a series of public meetings on their plan to mine 18,000 acres in a county that has never been the site of a phosphate mine. We take a trip to DeSoto County, where a proposed mine would dwarf the county's largest town, Arcadia.

A lone pickup truck rumbles along Pine Level Street, on a wooden bridge that crosses Horse Creek.

Far below the beat-up planks, Jerome “Romie” Davis was clearing debris along the creek, which is naturally stained brown from tannic acid as it winds through a cypress-studded swamp. Under big oak trees humming with cicadas, he says this is how it has probably looked since time immemorial.

“You know, why would erase all this?” he asked. “How could you replace this?”

 Romie Davis
Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
Romie Davis

Davis is a caretaker on this ranch by day, and a coyote hunter by night. He's seen a lot come through here in his 75 years. But DeSoto County has never seen anything like the phosphate mines that have scraped the earth in nearby Hardee and Polk counties.

The proposed mine would take over much of the northwest corner of DeSoto, which bumps up against Manatee County's southwest corner. It would straddle Horse Creek, which is one of the purest waterways in the state. It flows into the Peace River, which supplies drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.

Davis says phosphate mining would divert water that now flows into Horse Creek. And even though miners are required to restore the land after mining is done, Davis says it doesn't preserve the land's natural beauty.

“Baloney,” Davis said with a laugh. “Well go look. Have they done it yet? They've been doing it since back in the 60s. Go look at it. Show me one place that they made look like this. Show me one.”

When a reporter asked if he thinks this could be lost forever, he said, “Hell yes, it's gonna be.”

I ride to the old bridge on an SUV driven by Brooks Armstrong. The soft-spoken native of Minnesota found his little corner of paradise here about 20 years ago. He now lives on 19 wooded acres of Old Florida a few miles north of the proposed mine, in Hardee County.

He helped found People for Protecting Peace River when Mosaic first proposed rezoning the 23,000 acres of land it owns for mining. That got rejected by DeSoto County commissioners in 2018. But Mosaic is forging ahead with the plan.

“Because that's big money,” Armstrong said. “We're fighting against a lot of, a big entity here.”

 Brooks Armstrong reads a map of phosphate lands in Central Florida
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Brooks Armstrong reads a map of phosphate lands in Central Florida

Armstrong has attended several of the workshops Mosaic has since held. There, Mosaic officials have said they're good stewards of the environment.

But Armstrong isn't buying it.

“But then, you see an incident happen - you know, and they happen regularly - where an accident or a spill, (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) didn't do their job, or they don't have enough teeth,” he said. “And where does that leave these people?”

Last week, DeSoto County commissioners voted to ban the storage of phosphate mining waste from being built here. But Mosaic has said repeatedly it has no plans to build those mountain-like holding areas, which have been prone to leaks and sinkholes.

Armstrong said decisions could be made in just over a year from now, so now is the time for people to act.

“At some point, we're going to have to make a concerted push to get to each and every one of these people and say, look - you've either got to get out and help the effort here,” he said, “or kiss it goodbye.”

Map of the proposed DeSoto County mine
Kara Clauser/Center for Biological Diversity
Map of the proposed DeSoto County mine

Back along Horse Creek, it's folks like Romie Davis that Armstrong is trying to rally to oppose the nation's largest phosphate miner.

“I can't do anything about it. I don't like it, but I don't think there's a lot I can do about it,” Davis sighed. “They've got too much money backing them.”

Mosaic has reached an agreement with DeSoto County that they won’t bring the rezoning request back until sometime after January, 2023.

 Horse Creek
Steve Newborn/WUSF Public Media
Horse Creek

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