The Florida agency known as DEP needs a reminder that the P stands for protection, not permissiveness. Officials with the Department of Environmental Protection say they will approve a phosphate mining permit on 2,400 acres of ranch land in Manatee County, including part of a creek that feeds a public water supply and nourishes Charlotte Harbor’s productive estuary.
Such permissive oversight might be understandable in West Virginia, where mining is king. In Florida, however, the destruction left behind by phosphate mining is increasingly incompatible with the state’s key assets – clean water and unpolluted rivers and coasts.
In coming years, two phosphate mining companies want to expand their operations into Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties at mining sites totaling more than 60,000 acres. All of the mines would be near Horse Creek, an important tributary to the Peace River, which empties into Charlotte Harbor. First up for permitting was the 2,400-acre ranch in Manatee. DEP indicated it would grant a mining permit to IMC- Agrico, which plans to dig up part of the Horse Creek West Fork stream bed and wetlands.
Phosphate mining, which turns vast stretches of Florida into a sterile moonscape, has a poor environmental record. In 1971, 2- billion gallons of mining slime spilled into the Peace River and spread to Charlotte Harbor, 64 miles away. In 1991, two more spills contaminated the Peace River. And in 1997, an acid spill in the Alafia River killed more than a million fish and shellfish 35 miles away in Hillsborough Bay. IMC-Agrico had a dam break at a Hillsborough County mine in 1994, releasing a half-billion gallons of tainted water that killed cattle, flooded mobile homes and uprooted trees.
Local officials in Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties fear such accidents will happen again, so they are fighting the mining permit. Joining them is the Peace River-Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, which supplies drinking water from the Peace River to 100,000 households in three counties.
Much is at stake. Pristine Horse Creek improves the water quality of the Peace River. When the river reaches Charlotte Harbor, it combines with saltwater to create a valuable estuary, used for recreation, tourism and fishing.
Charlotte Harbor is the second largest open water estuary in the state (after Tampa Bay) and important enough to be part of the national estuary program, which seeks cooperation among local, state and federal officials to protect its water quality and wildlife. Yet upstream, state environmental officials are permitting a mining operation that could threaten the harbor. It doesn’t make sense.
The next step is up to a state administrative judge to determine the facts in the permit dispute. If IMC is allowed to mine the Horse Creek West Fork, it is only the beginning of a mining onslaught in the area. The DEP could have chosen to protect the creek by limiting mining there, which would have minimized the risk to the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor. The agency failed to live up to its name.