The suit contends that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the Clean Water Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to hold a public hearing or critically reviewing Mosaic Phosphate's revised permit application. The suit seeks an injunction halting the mining permit until a full environmental impact statement review takes place that considers the cumulative impact of large-scale mining in the Peace River basin.
"The health of public water bodies is at stake here, yet the federal government shut the public out of the approval process. That's not right," said Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer. "There are significant environmental threats involved, and they need a public airing."
Since the 1800s, strip-mining has devastated well over 200,000 acres in the Peace River watershed, which includes the destruction of over 35,000 acres of wetlands and 101 miles of streams. Of great concern is the fact that Mosaic is currently seeking permits to mine 34,551 more acres within that same watershed.
"We are alarmed by Mosaic's plans to strip mine very large areas of the Peace River basin in Manatee and Hardee counties. Strip mining will bring absolute, compete destruction of wetlands, loss of wildlife habitat, pollution of our waterways, and harm to the Peace River and greater Charlotte Harbor estuary. The cumulative impact of this massive level of mining must be determined before additional mines are permitted" said Gayle Reynolds, Chair of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club. "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself has pointed that out."
Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Request show that officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are concerned about the cumulative impact of mining in Southwest Florida. At the same time that the agency was evaluating Mosaic's application to mine the Altman tract, the EPA refused to approve Mosaic's application for the South Fort Meade mine extension in Hardee County -- another mine in the Peace River watershed. EPA officials insisted that the cumulative impact analysis for the South Fort Meade mine extension had to include "the entire Peace River watershed and include an analysis of the overall mining activities that are currently underway and/or planned for this watershed."
Federal officials wrote that "EPA considers the Peace River, its tributaries, and watershed to be vital to aquatic resources of national importance," and stated that "re-created wetland and tributary systems are rarely able to replace the full range of functions and values of the impacted aquatic resources."
Yet, the Corps -- without doing an environmental impact study or holding a public hearing -- issued a permit authorizing Mosaic Phosphate to destroy 480 acres of high-quality wetlands by mining the 2,367-acre Altman Tract in the watershed of Horse Creek, a major Peace River tributary.
The Altman Tract has a mosaic of high-quality, interrelated wetlands and uplands, all with important native vegetation and only minor man-made impacts. It has deep marshes, shallow marshes, wet prairie, bay swamps, and mixed forested wetlands. Water quality on the tract is very good, and the tract is used by many threatened and rare species, including the Florida scrub jay, gopher tortoise, eastern indigo snake, Florida sandhill crane, Florida mouse, and Southeastern American kestrel.
The lawsuit contends that the Corps "arbitrarily and capriciously" failed to critically review Mosaic's spurious claim that a man-made landscape, re-created after strip mining, functions as well as, or better than, a natural landscape.
"Florida taxpayers are already spending millions to restore the upper Peace River, which has been ravaged by past phosphate mining operations," said Reimer of Earthjustice. "Our hope is that this lawsuit shines a bright light on this corporation's mining permit, which has the potential to devastate waters that belong to the public."
Read the lawsuit (PDF)