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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.

Plans to dig DeSoto County's first phosphate mine are on hold

Man addresses DeSoto County commissioners
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
Brooks Armstrong of People For Protecting Peace River addresses DeSoto County commissioners during Wednesday's workshop

Plans to rezone thousands of acres in Central Florida for a new phosphate mine have been put off for at least two years.

Mosaic, the nation's largest producer of fertilizer, is delaying plans to mine 18,000 acres in DeSoto County until at least 2025.

County commissioners in DeSoto, which is about 90 minutes southeast of Tampa, rejected rezoning for the mine in 2018. But Mosaic appealed the decision, and a judge agreed they could bring back the request as early as January.

Company spokeswoman Jackie Barron said the delay is because of the closure of their processing facility in Plant City.

Brooks Armstrong, who is with People Protecting Peace River — which is opposing the mine — says while Mosaic continues with its plan, most of the candidates running for county commission this year have shared their opposition in political forums.

"Without exception, they all said they were against it," Armstrong said at Wednesday's meeting in Arcadia, the county seat. "Some were a little more reserved to say that they would wait until all the information got in. But I got the impression that no one wanted to say that there were benefits to mining."

The one commissioner who is not up for reelection, Judy Schaefer, said she has not made up her mind on Mosaic's plans and is still gathering information.

DeSoto County residents are not the only ones concerned.

Richard Whitman is head of the environmental group Heal Our Harbor in Charlotte County, just downstream from where the mine would be located on a tributary of the Peace River. While the county government there has no jurisdiction, they still are speaking out.

"The Charlotte County commissioners have voted against this. It's just not in our interest whatsoever," Whitman said. "Right now, the harbor itself is in crisis. Nutrient overloading, blue-green algae, deoxygenation, seagrass loss from algal blooms, the red tide. All of which is excess nitrogen and phosphorous. So no good can occur for the harbor, which is already at a tipping point from additional phosphorous."

Barron says 9,000 acres have already been rezoned for mining. The nation's largest phosphate producer owns a total of 23,000 acres that are in areas that could be mined.

Map of the planned DeSoto County mine
Courtesy Kara Clauser/Center For Biological Diversity
Map of the planned DeSoto County mine

Armstrong said he realizes that the mine's opponents have to be vigilant in the long term.

"We're not going to let go of this thing. This is important," Armstrong said. "This is the citizens here, they're concerned about a whole range of things, from their property values to their drinking water, to the reasons they moved here in the first place."

Armstrong expressed fears that mining could impact the quality of Horse Creek. It's a major tributary of the Peace River, which supplies drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people in several counties.

Earlier this week, the Southwest Florida Water Management District approved purchasing a 4,357-acre conservation easement over a portion of the approximately 16,315-acre Carlton Horse Creek Ranch. It's just upstream from the proposed mine.

A conservation easement allows landowners to continue to use their land without allowing any further development.

Horse Creek Ranch is located across both Hardee and DeSoto counties, in the southwest corner of Hardee County and the northwest corner of DeSoto County.

“This is a chance to save one of the largest functional pieces of the Peace River Watershed,” wrote Charles Lee, Director of Advocacy for Audubon Florida, in a prepared statement. “When you look at a satellite image to the north and south, it’s the only place that has a shot of staying natural. It’s rich in wildlife and water resources.”

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