MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. -- Manatee County Commissioners held a special meeting today to consider whether to renew operating permits for three phosphate mines, and to allow interested parties to voice their concerns. On one side you had Mosaic, a major player in the fertilizer industry, who said the permit renewal was necessary to maintain the viability of their business and to save hundreds of jobs. Opposing the renewal were property owners and environmental groups who said the operation is doing more harm than good.
The current permit allows Mosaic to operate phosphate mines at three locations spread over more than 2000 acres in eastern Manatee County. The permit must be renewed every five years.
Sandra Ripberger with the Manatee Sarasota Sierra Club says her group opposes allowing Mosaic to continue its phosphate mining operation, saying the company is depleting the water supply.
"They have permits for 70 million gallons of water a day," Ripberger says. "Resident are reporting to us that for the last two years the levels of their wells have dropped two-and-a-half feet."
A Mosaic spokesperson says that the 69 million gallons of water they're permitted to use is for all of their sites combined. And that the company is only using about half that amount. Ninety-seven wells have been documented at low levels, though the company says it’s working to solve the problem.
"It's not that it's insignificant because it is significant," says Mosaic's Jeff Dodson, "but [the wells] gives us a tool to monitor ... the water to determine what action needs to be taken to bring those water levels back up."
Dodson says the company is taking every precaution to maintain water quality, and not renewing the permits would cause unnecessary harm to Mosaic and its employees
"It’s a very important permit for us," Dodson says. "This covers three different locations within our operations, with several hundred employees involved, and we're providing a service basically to the world."
In the end, the commission agreed to renew the permits, with Commissioner Larry Bustle saying, “We determined at the end of the session that they had complied, and therefore we voted to extend the operating permits."
Still, conservation groups say residents and the environment will pay the price.
"It's a tremendous user of water," says Ripberger. "We spoke to one resident who lives along the Manatee River and has farmed there for 45 years, and she had to sell off half of her cattle because she doesn't have grass for them anymore."