The phosphate mining industry attempts to promote favorable regulations and a positive image in the ways one might expect of a billion-dollar global industry.
The industry lobbies lawmakers, contributes to community coffers and publishes literature that suggests phosphate mining pumps billions of dollars into the economy and leaves behind reclaimed lands in a near-pristine condition.
That’s according to a review of the Web sites and reports published by the companies that mine phosphate in Central Florida — IMC Phosphates, Farmland Hydro, Cargill, CF Industries and U.S. Agri-chem.
The industry makes contributions to state and congressional political campaigns through phosphate political action committees. It also finances the Florida Phosphate Council, which monitors state legislation and lobbies lawmakers.
The industry also works to earn a reputation as a good corporate citizen in the communities that host company operations.
Cargill Fertilizers, for example, advertised to fill a post for a “public relations coordinator.”
The employee would “represent Cargill Fertilizer in Hardee County through leadership roles in the community and by serving on boards, chairing civic committees and charitable organizations. Develop favorable relationships with Hardee County commission, local, state legislatures and federal government agencies.”
And IMC Phosphates announced just this week that its employees raised $32,762 for environmental groups such as Audubon of Florida and Sierra Club and $356,047 for the United Way. The corporation, which claims to have $2 billion in assets, kicked in an extra $200,000 for the United Way.
IMC staffers sold 2,000 barbecue tickets and also sold patriotic IMC/United Way T-shirts to raise the money, according to a corporate press release.
Cargill also boasts on its Web site of donating $25,000 for a disaster relief fund and establishing a scholarship Partnership Fund that has given 460 scholarships to students across the nation.
In Hardee County, the mine companies also regularly donate funds for local community events, said County Commission Chairman Walter Olliff. With amounts typically about $1,000, the contributions may be small for such global corporations, he said.
But the publicity generated is great, he said.
“A lot of times, that $1,000 check is the biggest donation (a local organization) will see — and there’s always a picture in the paper of the mining company executive handing over the check,” he said.
Cargill also provides mini-grants to school teachers for finding “innovative ways to incorporate agriculture or the environment into a classroom project.” The average grant is $250. The company has given out $160,000 in the grants since 1998.
The companies also assign staffers to serve on community and government boards ranging from the Wauchula Kiwanis Club to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, according to Hardee citizens.
Another strategy is to emphasize the economic contribution to state and global markets.
For example, at a conference of the World Trade Organization held in June 1999 in Winter Haven, Mary Lou Racjheal, president of the Florida Phosphate Council, said the industry employs 8,000 directly and generates 93,000 jobs statewide.
She also emphasized that “trade with China is key to the Florida phosphate industry” and called for trade relations with the communist country to be normalized.
“China is a major trading partner,” she said. “The U.S. exports approximately 7 million tons per year of phosphate fertilizer to China, which represents almost half of total U.S. phosphate exports and nearly one-fourth of total U.S. phosphate production.”
The industry also publishes glossy environmental reports portraying the industry as environmentally friendly.
For example, a phosphate council report titled “Phosphate Reclamation Reflections” contains about 70 percent photographs, mostly of wetlands and pine forests, and 30 percent text.
One photo shows a plot of corn growing on a reclaimed clay settling area, which are massive impoundment sites for waste clays.
The text explains that clay settling areas serve during mining as mine water storage reservoirs, allowing the industry to conserve water.
After mining, “the ponds have typically been reclaimed for pasture, but wetland habitats can be established when properly designed. They are also suitable for other agricultural uses.”
That claim is contrary to the conclusion of a study released this summer by soil scientists. Sponsored by the Central Florida Regional Planning Council, the study concluded that reclamation sites were “severely limited” in suitability for agriculture.
The soil scientists had cited a national soil-type ranking system established by the National Resource Conservation Service.
The phosphate council, however, called that study “inaccurate and disturbing” in a letter it sent to the conservation service. The letter calls for the national soil rankings to be changed to reflect the fact that reclaimed mining areas are higher in phosphorus and other minerals.
The letter concedes, however, that the soils “are different from the natural soils” and that converting mine sites into farms is “still in the early stages.”
The phosphate industry also has reacted swiftly to counter other scientific reports that paint the industry in an unfavorable light. For example, two University of South Florida researchers found that wildlife is slow to return to manmade habitats on reclaimed lands as compared to unmined lands.
After the Sun published an article about those findings, the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research, which funded the study, was inundated with complaints from mining executives, said Paul Clifford, institute executive director.
However, Clifford said he is resistant to such attempts to influence science.
“All of our constituents know we are only interested in science,” he said. “I don’t care if the research shows phosphate mining has favorable impacts or not.”
Still, the institute canceled the second phase of the wildlife study and reconstituted it earlier this month. The institute gave a grant to a consultant for mining to study what wildlife can be found on reclaimed mine sites and in which habitats.
But Clifford points out that at least one of the two USF professors on the first study, Dr. Henry Mushinsky, is now a member of the team on the second study.