July 6, 2002, a heavy rain flooded a 15,700-acre phosphate mining area in Hardee County, washing out an old dike that had impounded the stormwater. More than 500 gallons of mud-and-clay-saturated water rushed into the wetlands and eventually into the Peace River.
The river, our drinking water supply, turned the color of tea. The impact lasted days.
It was not the first, nor the only, accident where phosphate mining threatened Southwest Florida’s water supply. And, we doubt it will be the last — despite a renewed effort by Mosaic to be a better steward of the environment.
The history of phosphate mining in Florida is fraught with environmental disasters and lawsuits. Charlotte and Sarasota counties have been at the center of some of those suits. A five-year-long suit in the early 2000s saw Charlotte County spend more than $10 million to stall a mining permit for Mosaic’s Altman tract in eastern Manatee County.
Charlotte County was joined by Sarasota and Lee counties in that suit.
Now, DeSoto County faces the same plight. Its commissioners have so far stood steadfast against rezoning land in their county to allow Mosaic to mine phosphate on it. There is currently a three-year cooling off period to allow DeSoto and Mosaic to try to work out a compromise.
When Charlotte County commissioners suggested at a meeting last week that “DeSoto County could use our help,” it may have rubbed some DeSoto officials the wrong way.
At a subsequent meeting in Arcadia, DeSoto County Commissioner Judy Schaefer said “We have the horse and we have to ride it ...” In DeSoto language that means butt out. We have this.
But we don’t believe Schaefer or other commissioners were telling Charlotte to stay home. And, later in the meeting, they did agree that a May workshop with other counties might be beneficial to their predicament.
We can’t read minds. Whether DeSoto County commissioners are adjusting to the idea of phosphate mining and the dangers it presents to the Peace River, or whether they are biding their time to prepare an even bigger challenge to Mosaic, we don’t know.
History tells us, however, that challenging Mosaic is an expensive proposition. And any county would be served well by bringing in some reinforcements and, if offered, some financial help.
Mosaic learned from the mistakes of previous companies like IMC-Agrico. The people running the Mosaic business today are sincere, we believe, when they say they want to protect the environment. And, they are smart enough to want to partner with local governments to help the areas they mine enjoy a better quality of life.
But, accidents happen. Sometimes they are not the fault of the mining company. Sometimes Mother Nature deals a nasty blow.
The outcome can be nasty.
History reminds us: Some 3 billion gallons of clay pond wastewater spilled into Payne Creek on Oct. 2, 1994 in a site owned by IMC-Agrico; later that year, 482 million gallons spilled into the Alafia River; and in 2002 an earthen berm at a mined-out area blew out, dumping millions of gallons of clay-laden stormwater into our Peace River, all according to Department of Environmental Protection records.
We are pleased Charlotte County is willing to share its Mosaic experiences with DeSoto County. We believe it would be worthwhile to invite Sarasota, Manatee and Lee counties to that May workshop too.
An editorial from the Charlotte Sun.