No Means No: The Battle of Mosiac vs DeSoto County Update

Dragline mining for phosphate at Four Corners Lonesome Mine. Florida’s Phosphate Mines

In a classic David vs Goliath battle, mining giant Mosaic has made it clear that it won’t take “no” for an answer regarding its quest to establish large-scale phosphate mining operations in DeSoto County.

It is currently pursuing a quasi-judicial dispute resolution mediation process with the DeSoto Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), and BOCC legal counsel, to reach a compromise in the board-denied request by Mosaic to rezone 14,000 acres of county land from agriculture to mining.  The land rezoning is a pre-requisite for the pending application of Mosaic’s mining plan and operating permits.  The BOCC denied Mosaic’s rezoning request in July 2018 citing Mosaic’s failure to meet 7/15 criteria for granting the request.  There was strong public sentiment against granting the rezoning request at the hearing in July and at subsequent hearings in August 2018 and on April 3rd, 2019 conducted as part of the Mosaic-initiated dispute resolution process.  There will be another hearing later this month where the BOCC will approve or deny a compromise proposal between Mosaic and DeSoto County legal representatives.  At this time, the details of the compromise proposal are not known.

So far, at each of these hearings, public attendance has been high, and the over-riding sentiment is not just “No” but a resounding “Hell No”! to Mosaic’s rezoning request.  At the last hearing, more than 50 people from DeSoto, and other counties, stood up to voice their dissent for a compromise.  “No means no” was a popular refrain.  Only one speaker was supportive of Mosaic on the grounds that a property owner should have the right to do what they wanted to on their land.  So, as summed up by that one public commenter, you have the argument at hand:  Rights of the Community vs. Rights of the Property Owner.  In this case, David vs. Goliath.

Phosphogypsum stack located near Fort Meade, Florida. These contain the waste byproducts of the phosphate fertilizer industry.

To put things into perspective, Mosaic is the world leader in making phosphate and potash crop nutrients in its quest to “help the world grow the food it needs”.  It also generates more than $7-Billion in annual revenue.  On the other hand, DeSoto County is home to 35,000 people with a median annual household income of just over $30,000.  The county is 639 square miles of mostly farmland, rangeland, and wetlands.  It is home to cattle ranchers, horse farmers and citrus growers many of whom are multi-generational owners of lands passed down over more than 100 years. Mosaic wants to turn approximately 23,000 acres of that land into active mining operations.  This is about 18% of the county’s land mass or 9 times the size of the county seat, Arcadia.

Given the way the scales are tipped, and the outcome of similar scenarios in other Florida counties, including Manatee, Hillsborough, Polk and Hardee counties, Mosaic will likely win the battle.  Based on Mosaic’s track record in these counties, DeSoto County is at risk of becoming a mining town. Its native citizens will leave (if they can), DeSoto and surrounding communities will live under the stress of nearby mining operations, another toxic legacy will be created, and the once fertile county lands and wetlands will be compromised.  An excellent article about the history and impact of phosphate mining in Florida was published in the May 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine.  The article is entitled The Clock is Ticking on Florida’s Mountains of Hazardous Phosphate Waste.

Charlotte Harbor Estuary at Ponce de Leon Park, Punta Gorda

If you think this is just a sad story for some poor souls in DeSoto County, think again.  DeSoto County is also home to the Peace River and which flows into Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.  The Charlotte Harbor estuary is one of the most productive wetlands in Florida and supports fishing, commerce, recreation, and tourism.  It is also a threatened ecosystem because of the rapid increase of growth and development, poor land-use policies, and the overuse of natural resources.  The Peace River is the region’s drinking water supply and needs to be protected. The risks posed by large-scale phosphate mine near the Peace River watershed and Charlotte Harbor estuary are real.  Phosphate mining accidents and force majeure incidents of the past are scary reminders of what could be in our future.  Less obvious, and more complex, are the long-term impacts on our ecosystems and water quality over time.

As the battle between DeSoto County and Mosaic plays out, the dilemmas to consider extend beyond “rights of the community” AND “rights of the property owner”.  Decision-makers are also tasked with finding the optimum balance between “progress AND “preservation”, “industry” AND “environment”, and “feeding the world” AND “protecting Florida water quality”. These are not “either/or” considerations.  Both sides of each equation are important.  If it were a “No Brainer” the answers would be obvious.  So how do we strike the right balance to maintain a healthy, growing and vibrant Florida?

The first step is to look for warning signs that our systems are out of balance whether they be economic or environmental.  By most accounts, economic indicators for the state are very good.  On the other hand, one only needs to read or watch the news to know that we have serious water quality issues in Florida.  Media accounts of red tide, green algae, red algae, massive fish kills and people on the beach sporting face masks have plagued us for months and months.  Water use restrictions are in place in many communities and at times we are under a “boil your water” alert.  Water quality is the lifeblood of Florida with human health and well-being, the environment and the economy all reliant on clean water.  We have reached a tipping point where it’s time to shift the needed degree of focus to improving, maintaining, protecting and preserving our natural resources.  In the case of DeSoto County vs Mosaic Corporation, this means not allowing Mosaic to expand its mining footprint in Florida until they can demonstrate their ability, not just to meet current mining and reclamation regulations, but safely manage it’s waste, have a controlled impact on the environment and natural ecosystems, and restore the lands to their natural state.

Farmland in DeSoto County

The property owner, Mosaic, invested in 14,000 acres of agriculture land speculating that it would be rezoned for mining.  If they lose their rezoning battle, they will still have 14,000 acres of fertile and valuable agriculture land.  They won’t have lost a thing.

Stay strong DeSoto County, the state of Florida needs you!  And step up and step in state and federal legislators.  We need your help to make this an even match. No more David and Goliath scenarios.  Because David really isn’t really small after all.