Mosaic gypstack in Bartow

Punta Gorda resident Tim Ritchie was going to use photos like this of Mosaic Fertliizer LLC’s phosphogypsum stack on Bartow to show what he considered to be toxic pollution by the global mining and manufacturing company. The walls of the towering gypstack are at the top of the photo and the various settling areas are at the lower half, some very dark waters, some green. But Ritchie decided to drop his petition due to a threat that he would have to pay Mosaic’s legal bills.

And then there was one.

The lead petitioner against Mosaic Fertilizer LLC and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has dropped his claim in exchange for Mosaic’s promise that the corporation won’t stick him with their mounting legal bills.

“The only good thing right now is that I didn’t get hit with $50,000 in attorney fees,” Tim Ritchie told the Sun.

Ritchie and another 12 residents from the region were seeking to block DEP’s permit for the company to continue fertilizer production in Bartow. The five-year permit — three years in the making — would allow Mosaic to continue producing toxic liquid waste, some of which ends up in area streams that feed the Peace River.

The Peace River is the main drinking water source for most of Charlotte County as well as parts of Sarasota County.

Mosaic filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss Ritchie’s claim and make the petitioners pay all legal bills, calling the petition frivolous. So gradually, the other 12 petitioners dropped out, citing fear and stress as their motivation. That left Ritchie — aided by one or two experts who were going to testify for him.

A separate petitioner remains, Nathan Tzodikov of Nokomis, who did not join Ritchie’s petition but wrote his own. His did not face the same threat of legal billing that Ritchie’s did. Tzodikov has a Ph.D in chemistry from MIT and is a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry on regulatory affairs.

“I’m so proud of him,” Ritchie said of Tzodikov. “I hope he doesn’t feel I’ve abandoned him.”

Tzodikov said Mosaic and FDEP has asked to him to discuss a possible settlement today. If he does not settle, hearings are scheduled Aug. 17 to 19 in Tallahassee. Tzodikov’s petition was much narrower than Ritchie’s, focusing on a claim common to both petitions. That is the claim that Mosaic uses vast quantities of groundwater in Bartow to dilute its toxic waste stream. This effectively dilutes the toxic waste, allowing Mosaic to meet federal pollution guidelines.

Ritchie’s petition was more global, accusing Mosaic of polluting the Peace River with hazardous elements, including include low-level radioactivity called alpha particles, heavy metals and corrosive acids.

Mosaic spokesperson Jackie Barron told the Sun the company is pleased that Ritchie has withdrawn his petition. She said that Ritchie’s positions has been rebuffed regularly by multiple scientists, regulatory agencies and people on his Facebook page.

It’s not clear what scientists she was referring to; however, Larry Brand, marine biologist at University of Miami and longstanding fertilizer critic, said he was willing to testify, but could not get data from Ritchie.

“If I had scientific data showing specific violations by Mosaic, I would have no problem acting as an expert witness against Mosaic,” Brand told the Sun in an email.

Another scientist, geologist David Woodhouse, was prepared to testify in particular about the potential for sinkholes that have occurred at Mosaic plants in the past. Woodhouse wrote that he planned to testify of the corrosive effects of acids in the discharge fluids on Florida’s limestone bedrock.

It was the legal depositions in recent weeks that made Ritchie and one of his expert witnesses Andy Mele realize they could not win this one.

It would go like this. Ritchie’s petition claims alpha particles are exposing people to low levels of radioactivity in the water. Mosaic or DEP’s lawyer would ask, “What medical documents do you have?”

“They wanted me to have tests or proofs of my own...How in the hell can I get that?” Ritchie said. He had been relying on Mosaic’s own data showing evidence of these toxins in various wells the company is required to monitor.

Ritchie said the experience has motivated him to get a college degree at 55, but Mele has a master’s degree in science and didn’t fare much better. Mele suspected Mosaic would seek to disqualify him, because his residence of Punta Gorda gets its water from a tributary of the Peace River, not the Peace River.

“We were going to be turned into hamburger and nobody needs that,” Mele told the Sun.

But it’s not over for Ritchie and his team.

“We’re not going to die on this hill today,” Mele said. “We’re going to go off the radar and pull together a more powerful and stronger campaign for the future — a campaign that can be applied to the next Mosaic hearing in 2023 (for mining expansion in DeSoto County) and to the next (water permit).”

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