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Florida's Strip Mine Strong Arm

Editor's note: This feature was written by Earthjustice Managing Attorney David Guest.

Down here in Florida, we're continuing our fight against the giant, destructive phosphate strip mines that trash our landscape and pollute our water.

Our latest legal battle takes aim at some incredible strong-arm corporate tactics that Mosaic Phosphate is using to shut out local citizens and get its local land-use approvals to mine in the watershed of the gorgeous Peace River in Southwest Florida.

On February 17, after compiling evidence about substantial back-room dealing, Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer filed suit in state court against Southwest Florida's Manatee County Commission and Mosaic, pointing out that the local government engaged in a "grossly illegal process" when it gave the company approval to strip-mine 2,000 acres. We are representing Sierra Club, Manasota-88, and local citizens John Rehill, John Korvick, and Mary Sheppard.

The suit reveals that Manatee County and Mosaic practiced so-called "contract zoning," because the company offered the local government substantial cash, parks, and other amenities in exchange for its mining permit. It was an offer the Manatee County Commission didn't refuse.

Mosaic first bullied the commission by threatening to sue for more than $600-million under Florida's Bert Harris Act property-rights law, even though the company didn't meet the requirements for such a claim. The law requires one of two things: That the landowner has a vested right to the proposed use, or that the landowner already has the existing use. Mosaic had no vested right because the land is zoned for agriculture, not mining, and it wasn't currently mining the land so it had no existing use.

Then, Mosaic started behind-the-scenes dealing and pulled out its political goodie box.

In exchange for the county commission's approval to mine, Mosaic offered to build on its property a 7,000 square-foot fire station, a community park with a baseball field, soccer field, 19-acre lake, boat ramp and dock, restroom facilities, picnic areas, a parking area, a complete irrigation system for landscaping and sports fields, and funding not to exceed $87,000 per year for three years (plus $58,000 start up costs the first year) for operating and maintenance expenses. The company also offered to work with the county to improve environmental education center, including up to $75,000 in funding. 

"Simply put," the lawsuit states, "a fire station, a park, an environmental education center and a pot of money has nothing to do with the "merits" of whether the Altman Tract, with its high quality, pristine wetlands and neighboring residential neighborhood, should be rezoned from agricultural (and all the other uses available within that zoning category) to open-pit phosphate strip mining."

Our lawsuit points out: "...if zoning is allowed to depend upon how much money an applicant is willing to spend, then there is no zoning."

Our lawsuit also shows that the Manatee County Attorney's Office and members of the Manatee County Commission told citizens who questioned the mine that they could not discuss the permit because of pending legal action by Mosaic, but then held a series of meetings and phone calls with Mosaic to discuss details. The commission also improperly approved a mining plan and operating permit before the land had the required rezoning from agriculture to mining, our suit points out.

Although this latest case deals with local land-use approvals, we are also continuing to fight the company's destructive mining pursuits in other legal venues. We filed suit in federal court in September, 2008, contending that the Corps illegally gave Mosaic a dredge and fill permit when it  failed to critically review Mosaic's claim that a man-made landscape (re-created after strip mining) functions as well as, or better than, a natural landscape. We filed the lawsuit on behalf of Sierra Club, ManaSota-88, People for Protecting Peace River (3PR), the Gulf Restoration Network, and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.

We won a partial victory in that case when, on October 5, 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended a federal permit that gave Mosaic the right to destroy 480-acres of wetlands in the Peace River watershed. In its letter, the Corps said: "The Corps has determined that it is in the public interest to revisit the analysis in support of the permit decision."

We don't think that any more permits should be issued until the Corps does a regional environmental impacts study to take a hard look at all the mining Mosaic intends to conduct in the future. The company is seeking permits to mine 34,551 more acres within that same watershed. 

Sadly, strip-mining has devastated more than 200,000 acres in the Peace River watershed since the 1880s. More than 35,000 acres of the public's wetlands and 101.2 miles of the public's streams have been wiped out for the sake of private profit. They are literally digging up Florida's ancient bones and selling them off to the highest bidder. What a shame.