Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Editorial: Hillsborough commissioners’ parting gift for phosphate
With two members headed out the door, a lame-duck Hillsborough County Commission approved a controversial plan last week to allow phosphate giant Mosaic to ship out-of-town clay into the county. This may serve Mosaic’s interests, but it’s bad for the neighbors and the political process, and officials should guard against unintended consequences.
The commission voted 4-2 to approve Mosaic’s request to pipe in clay from its Ona Mine in Hardee County into the Four Corners Mine in southeast Hillsborough. The clay is a byproduct of the extraction process in mining; slurry from the Ona Mine will be shipped through a pipeline to a plant at Four Corners, where it will be used in “clay-settling” areas. Mosaic estimates it has unused or uncommitted capacity at the site to store about 19.5 million tons of clay from Hardee County. The company says that fully filled areas can be reclaimed more successfully because of the potential to level the topography and to better control drainage. A hearing master agreed with the argument and in October recommended the commission approve the request.
But some environmentalists dispute that adding more clay to these ponds creates better conditions for recreating healthier upland areas. Scores of people signed a petition opposing the request. Critics raised concerns over the toxicity of the clay, the danger of pollutants harming wetlands and the water supply, and any precedent Hillsborough would create by taking on so much out-of-town waste. The commission’s vote reversed a provision agreed to in 2002 that there would not be more clay deposited in Hillsborough than what was produced from phosphate operations inside the county. And the board rejected a bid by Commissioner Pat Kemp to delay the request, which would have kicked the proposal to a Democratic-majority commission which takes office Tuesday. Outgoing Commissioners Victor Crist and Al Higginbotham joined their Republican colleagues Sandy Murman and Ken Hagan in approving the permit.
There was no need for the rush job. Mining operations are largely regulated by the state. A delay would have given county officials time to explore the critics’ concerns, and to consider the impacts of expanded operations at the Hillsborough site. Republican Commissioner Stacy White, who joined Kemp in opposing the permit, and whose district includes the Four Corners Mine, said Mosaic has been a good community partner but that neighbors had put up with enough disruption. White’s sensible views and knowledge of his district should have carried the day. Once again, the commission looks indifferent to the little guy and to those most affected by their decision.
Commissioners did impose several restrictions, requiring Mosaic to report annually on the amount of clay being shipped and to pay for an independent firm to monitor water quality. Commissioners also placed a five-year limit on their approval. These reports need to come back to the board as regular agenda items for discussion, and the county needs to keep area residents in the loop as it surveys the impacts over the life of the operation. The episode also speaks to the need for more local control over mining. A more robust examination at the local level of mining’s impact, reclamation efforts and community outreach could at least have resulted in a more informed decision.