PORT CHARLOTTE — Some Charlotte County commissioners think they heard a call for help from DeSoto County commissioners.
Charlotte commissioners talked last week about how they can help the smaller population county of DeSoto deal with a multi-national mining and phosphate giant, Mosaic Company.
“Is there something we can do to say that we don’t agree with a permit renewal (for Mosaic)?” Charlotte County Commissioner Chris Constance asked his colleagues. “We have no jurisdiction, but would a resolution help at all?”
On Nov. 5, DeSoto County Commissioner J.C. Deriso suggested that his commission join with other county commissions that are affected by Mosaic’s expansion plans in Florida. The DeSoto board will discuss this option at its Nov. 19 meeting.
“They’re looking for help. That was my sense,” said Charlotte County Commissioner Joe Tiseo, who attended the Nov. 5 meeting in DeSoto that provided information on how the county would regulate mining. “They recognize that we’re down river ... They’re asking us for us to have a seat at the table.”
A different board of commissioners 20 years ago in Charlotte County tried to sue Mosaic’s predecessor IMC, seeking better protection of the Peace River — the county’s primary drinking water source. Today’s commissioners acknowledged at their meeting Tuesday that the early suit ultimately failed to give the county any added standing.
“I know that the county was involved in litigation years ago and lost,” Constance noted.
Mosaic is currently seeking both to expand its mining south into DeSoto County, and also, to continue its phosphate fertilizer production in Polk County. To expand mining, it needs a zone change, but in 2018, DeSoto commissioners narrowly denied that. Mediation between Mosaic and DeSoto is allowing Mosaic to resubmit its request in 2023.
For fertilizer processing, Mosaic is awaiting a permit renewal decision from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for its facility in Bartow. That is located in Polk County.
The problem for Charlotte County is that the Peace River starts in Polk County right next to the Bartow plant. The Peace River empties into Charlotte Harbor, where a regional water authority withdraws millions of gallons a day for drinking water supplied to four counties. Mining in DeSoto would be near the Horse Creek tributary of the Peace River.
“We’re at the end of that watershed for all those thousands of acres of mining,” said Constance. “If something were to occur, we would bear the brunt, and I don’t care how much money they have in escrow, that’s not enough bottles of water in perpetuity to hydrate this county and bathe this county and take care of us.”
Mosaic recently won a federal court case allowing it to discharge dredging into Florida waterways. The one dissenting judge argued that more phosphorus mining will allow more phosphate processing, which is the main environmental concern. She was overruled.
Mosaic’s anticipated permit extension is for storm water discharge into the Peace River and other wetlands. Concern is for runoff from the giant phosphogypsum stacks created by processing plants. One in nearby Mulberry collapsed inward in 2016, dropping an estimated 215 million gallons of contaminated water through a sinkhole below the stack. After a delay in reporting, Mosaic told regulators it managed to recover all the “process water” from the aquifer. The water and stack material is considered toxic and contains low levels of radioactivity, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“They don’t know when the next sinkhole is going to occur,” Constance said of state regulators. “These guys that are engineers are guessing,” said Constance, who is a surgeon.
Commission Chairman Ken Doherty, who is an engineer, said the region’s only avenue to curb Mosaic may be a challenge to how state regulators assess the risk of catastrophe.
“It could be the parameters where they’re issuing permits are not solid enough,” he said. “I’m not a geotechnical engineer, but I know enough about it to know there may be problems with the criteria for (permit) issuance.”
Reached for comment, Mosaic spokesperson Callie Neslund said asserting that Mosaic is not adequately regulated is “not factual.”
“We are one of the most highly regulated industries in the state of Florida,” she said.
As for predicting future sinkholes, she said Mosaic has, since the 2016 event, identified geologic monitoring systems used in the oil and gas industry. These geophones could be used to locate and then be installed before building a new gypstack, she said, but there have been no new gypstacks since 2016.
Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch began his Mosaic assessment pointing out that Mosaic may be the first phosphate company in Florida to follow the rules. But are those rules going to be enough, he asked?
“If Mosaic is doing every single thing they’re supposed to be doing ... is it still enough to make sure and guarantee that the Myakka River, the Peace River, (Lake) Okeechobee and the Everglades aren’t going to end up with something bad? That’s the kind of information it would be nice to have.”
At least one local anti-Mosaic citizen was happy with the board’s response.
“I’m thrilled,” said Tim Ritchie of Punta Gorda. Ritchie is president of March Against Mosaic. “We just had an amazing day here.”