The county commission's most recent concession to the Mosaic Company demonstrates just how good the phosphate giant has it here in Manatee. If it can't quite push through everything it wants when applying for a major expansion, like the one it received permission for last June, it can just come back later and collect it piecemeal, the same way land developers have been doing for years. All the two interests have to do is make sure the dais remains full of friendly faces.
On Tuesday, Manatee County Commissioners voted 5-2 to approve major changes to Mosaic's mining permit at its Wingate Creek mine in northeast Manatee County. This came as a surprise to no one. The Manatee BOCC has been very phosphate-friendly, especially in the last five years, and anyone who follows the board could have predicted the outcome.
When the company came before the BOCC to permit the additional 600-plus acre extension last year, it met with staunch opposition, passing 4-3 after lengthy and heated debate. Two of those three commissioners opposed to the expansion last year, remain on the board – Michael Gallen and Robin DiSabatino. The two new members, Betsy Benac and Vanessa Baugh, were, perhaps not coincidentally, the biggest cheerleaders of Tuesday's vote. Each heaped lavish praise on the company and one after the other, motioned each of the actions required. Both commissioners received support from Mosaic in their races.
Mosaic and other phosphate mining companies are having to creatively find ways to mine more phosphate without new wetland permits. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is not permitting new operations until it completes an environmental impact study of phosphate mining in central Florida. The most obvious way to get around that is to look for places on existing sites, which may not be as attractive under normal circumstances, but are still profitable to exploit given the absence of new ones.
Mining phosphates leaves behind a toxic substance called phosphogypsum, a radioactive by-product of processing the phosphate, for which no safe use has been found. After half a century of prolific mining, dozens of “gypsum stacks” line the Florida landscape, and acidic wastewater sits in lined ponds, which sometimes tear, allowing millions of gallons of hazardous discharge to spill into local waters.
The mining operations also produce plenty of fluoride gases. In the past, these gases escaped into the air and poisoned surrounding agriculture and livestock. Pollution control technology like wet scrubbers have helped to contain the fluoride, but it still needs to be disposed of afterward. That's where you come in. While the FDA has never approved fluoride ingestion for medical use, your body acts as a free filtration system when municipalities like Manatee County and the City of Bradenton buy the toxin from Mosaic with hundreds of thousands of dollars of your tax money. It then gets dumped into your drinking water, ostensibly to prevent cavities – a practice that's been said to be as nonsensical as drinking sunscreen lotion in order to ward off a sunburn.
That's not even the worst part. Phosphate mining relies on millions upon millions of gallons of our water each day, further jeopardizing our ability to meet drinking water and agricultural demands in the near future. The cost to the company for being allowed to pump about 70 million gallons each day was two $750 permits. Compare that to the $160 million spent on a desalination plant in Hillsborough County, which produces only 20 million gallons a day (and is only needed because mining is sucking so much water from their aquifer), and you can see how water is yet another way that an otherwise unsustainable industry is subsidized by the public's tax dollars, all in the name of about four jobs per-acre mined.
Yes, that's right. In addition to being one of the dirtiest and thirstiest enterprises going, phosphate mining is also one of the least labor-intensive industries out there, despite the vast amount of resources it consumes or damages. In fact, there has been a direct correlation between the counties in Florida that do the most mining and high levels of unemployment and poverty. You won't see any of this in Mosaic's rosy commercials about feeding the world's starving children. You won't see any moonscapes or gypsum stacks either; just lush, green fields and shiny, happy people.
These multi-million dollar PR campaigns not only shine the public perception as to what the company does, but also provide hefty accounts (and potential conflicts of interest) for the media outlets that carry them. Government boards on the other hand are much less expensive to influence. Last June, Mosaic saved over $5 million on a single vote. Then-Commissioner Joe McClash, asked that the approval of the extension be amended to include $103,000 per acre of wetland destroyed – the county's going rate. It failed 4-3.
It's clear that any idea that the county might secure something for its citizens beyond access to an infinite supply of fluoride with which to lace the water, each time it gives up something as precious as wetlands, is even more quaint today than it was 10 months ago. It's also clear that Commissioners DiSabatino and Gallen are likely to face well-financed opposition when they come up for reelection in 2014. The rubber stamp is loaded with ink, but squeaky wheels draw attention to inconvenient truths.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.
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