The June 14 issuance of a “dredge and fill” permit to Mosaic Fertilizers, a company that specializes in the extraction of phosphate and potash, to allow for the strip-mining of thousands of acres of wetlands in south Fort Meade, has outraged environmental groups.
On June 30, in USDC Middle District Court, the Sierra Club, People for Protecting Peace River and ManaSota-88 filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and one of its commanding district engineers, Colonel Alfred Pantano Jr. The plaintiffs seek a judgment that would issue a temporary restraining order barring the strip-mining, as well as a permanent injunction that would rescind the permit entirely.
The suit alleges that the permit is in violation of the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, and that the mining would have an overwhelming ecological impact:
Open pit strip mining for phosphate has a devastating impact on the local environment. Huge electrically powered draglines strip away all overlying vegetation, water bodies, topsoil and overburden (the sandy soils that overlay the phosphate deposit) down to the phosphate containing layer. The result is the utter destruction of the local natural environment from ground surface down to a depth of approximately 80 feet.
According to the suit, even worse than the potential environmental destruction was the Corps’ blatant disregard for otherwise typical steps taken to secure a permit
In the face of such enormous environmental degradation, and despite serious concerns raised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other governmental agencies and the public, the Corps determined that NEPA did not require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement for this action, and refused to hold a public hearing. … Worse yet, the Corpsdownplayed the cumulative effects of this strip mine and tens of thousands of acres of similar mines on the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor estuary, an “aquatic resource of national interest” and drinking water source for 250,000 Floridians.
The suit goes on to describe the many impacts of the mine, including an aesthetic impact that would affect tourism to the region as well as decrease property values for nearby residents.
The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of pollutants without a permit; the Corps oversees the permit process and must comply with guidelines issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Act specifies that public participation is a requirement in any permitting decisions and, according to the suit, the Corps has failed to adhere to the regulation that, once they receive a written request for a public hearing, “the district engineer … shall promptly set a time and place for a public meeting.”
The Sierra Club claims to have sent numerous letters to the Corps requesting a hearing, with no luck. In 2007, the Corps asked for public comments regarding the proposed mine, but never scheduled a public hearing.
In addition to violating the Clean Water Act and failing to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, the suit claims the Corps is guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act. The ESA requires that agencies consult with National Marine Fisheries Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that actions like strip-mining do not “jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species.” The area that would likely be affected by the mine includes the Peace River Watershed, which was designated a Priority Watershed and an Aquatic Resource of National Importance by the EPA and the state of Florida.
(Back in 2008, the EPA blasted the mine proposal, saying that it would cause “significant adverse impacts” to the river.)
Another affected estuary, Charlotte Harbor, was named an “estuary of national significance” by Congress and plays host to the smalltooth sawfish, a federally recognized endangered species. Both estuaries are dependent upon clean water flows to support the high variety of flora and fauna that live there. Three other threatened or endangered species that would potentially be affected by the Ford Meade mine include the wood stork, Audubon’s crested caracara and the eastern indigo snake.
The strip-mine permit was issued based on the Corps’ Environmental Assessment of No Significant Impact, a claim that the plaintiffs of the recently filed lawsuit find to be ludicrous: “The basis for the Corps’ finding of No Significant Impact was that the impact of destroying 534 acres of high-qaulity wetlands … and 56,661 linear feet of first order streams will be mitigated entirely by the creation of human-built wetlands and streams following the mining.”