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Environmental groups sue federal agencies over effects of phosphate mining

An aerial of a massive sinkhole that earlier this month opened up underneath a gypsum stack at a Mosaic phosphate fertilizer plant in Mulberry dumped at least 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the Floridan aquifer in August. Concerns about that sinkhole, in part, promoted environmental groups to sue federal agencies in federal court over the effects of phosphate mining. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]

An aerial of a massive sinkhole that earlier this month opened up underneath a gypsum stack at a Mosaic phosphate fertilizer plant in Mulberry dumped at least 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the Floridan aquifer in August. Concerns about that sinkhole, in part, promoted environmental groups to sue federal agencies in federal court over the effects of phosphate mining. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]

Four environmental groups filed suit Wednesday against the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for authorizing 50,000 acres of phosphate mining in central Florida that the groups said violates the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The suit, filed in Tampa federal court, takes aim at the two federal agencies over their approval of three new mines and the expansion of a fourth one in Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties.

Meanwhile, residents of two Lakeland subdivisions recently sued their development company, Drummond Co. of Alabama, for not disclosing the radiation risk of building homes atop former phosphate mining property.

That suit, also filed in Tampa federal court, says the homeowners now face the same radiation risk as someone who gets a chest X-ray every week.

So far no trial date has been set for either lawsuit, and neither one targets a phosphate company.

The lawsuit over mining focuses on a 2013 study published by the Army Corps that said creating those mines will destroy nearly 10,000 acres of wetlands and 50 miles of streams, causing a "significant impact.

But the study — prepared for the Army Corps by a consultant paid by the phosphate industry — contended miners would do such a good job of making up for the damage, through a multi-decade process called mitigation, that the impact would eventually not be noticeable. The study did not specify what sort of mitigation would be involved.

"Without mitigation, a lot of the effects would be significant — on wetlands, on groundwater, on surface water," Corps senior project manager John Fellows said at the time. "No question about it, mining is an impactive industry."

In the suit, the environmental groups called that study "incomplete and unlawfully insufficient" basis for the federal agency to approve the four mining permits.

The permits were all for one company, Mosaic. Mosaic spokeswoman Jackie Barron said the environmental groups' claims "are without merit; and their lawsuit threatens the jobs of thousands of Floridians ... The federal permits were issued following the most comprehensive environmental review process in the history of our industry."

The Army Corps referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also declined to comment.

The groups that sued are the Center for Biological Diversity, People for Protecting Peace River, ManaSota-88 and Suncoast Waterkeeper.

Last month, despite vocal public opposition, the Manatee County Commission approved a zoning change to accommodate Mosaic's mining expansion there. Much of the opposition focused on Mosaic's initial public silence about a sinkhole that opened up in one of its Mulberry phosphogypsum stacks, dumping 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the aquifer.

So far, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, no tests have shown that the contaminated water has traveled beyond Mosaic's borders.

Environmental groups sue federal agencies over effects of phosphate mining 03/16/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 5:54pm]
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