Residents challenge Mosaic water quality claims

By DANIEL SUTPHIN, Charlotte Sun Staff Writer, Jan 13, 2021 

ARCADIA — “Water is life, water is life,” Vicki Steiner pleaded to DeSoto County Commissioners Wednesday during a workshop in Arcadia on water quality and phosphate mining company Mosaic.

Steiner, of DeSoto County, was one of a handful of Southwest Florida residents speaking out against the fertilizer company, citing the practice of strip-mining as harmful to Florida habitats, wildlife and waterways, specifically the Peace River and its adjoining streams and estuaries.

“Even if Mosaic wanted to, there is no way they can guarantee they can protect us and the Peace River,” Steiner continued.

To operate, Mosaic is required to meet water quality regulations set by local, state and federal agencies.

At the workshop, three experts spoke on behalf of monitoring programs that have a hand in testing waterways in and around the Central Florida area where the company already operates.

All three found the company to be in compliance with agency regulations.

Mosaic owns around 18,000 acres of DeSoto farmland, a portion of which is not currently zoned for mining.

In 2018, the County Commissioners voted to deny the fertilizer company’s application to rezone that part of the land.

The workshops are part of a dispute settlement from 2019 between the county and Mosaic.

County Vice-Chair J.C. Deriso led the workshop, which was an information-only meeting. No decisions were made.

“(It) appears to be reliable data (that was provided),” Deriso told The Daily Sun. “I think that our next thing is to figure out how to tie that in because data is rearward looking. How do we tie that data into forward protections?

“Then also (how do we) mitigate challenges (such as storms and weather) as they come up. Knowledge is power and we gain more knowledge with every workshop.”

Wednesday’s workshop was the latest in a series of meetings the county will host leading up to 2023, when Mosaic plans to reapply for rezoning permits to mine phosphate in DeSoto County.

Mike Coates, of the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, said that as of Dec. 16, 2020, the water quality was “very good” at their testing sites.

The authority, which has been monitoring the area’s waterways since 1976, supplies water to Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The other two experts — Shannon Gonzalez from Flatwoods Consulting Group and Sheri A. Huelster of Cardno — both stated that their companies did not observe any “mining-related impact” in their testing areas.

Flatwoods, an environmentally-focused consulting group, has been collecting data from waterways associated with Mosaic operations for 16 years as part of the Horse Creek Stewardship Program.

Gonzalez told county commissioners that the program was formed in the early 2000s because of a lawsuit settlement between the Water Supply Authority and IMC-Agrico, a phosphate mining company associated with Mosaic.

Cardno, an environmental and social development company, has been collecting data from area waterways since 2012, in association with the Peace River Monitoring Program.

That program was also formed as part of a settlement agreement but this time between Mosaic and The Sierra Club, Manasota-88 and the People for Protecting the Peace River.

No one from Mosaic spoke at the workshop.

“This isn’t an effort that just started a few years ago,” wrote Mosaic spokesperson Jackie Barron in an email to The Daily Sun. “Teams of scientists and biologists have spent decades, in some cases, compiling data critical to understanding the health of these water bodies. The exhaustive data shows Mosaic’s operations have not had an impact.”

In their monitoring areas, all three experts noted peaks in harmful nutrients such as chlorophyll, nitrogen, chloride, orthophosphate and more, but said the change was mostly associated with two major hurricanes — 2004’s Hurricane Charley and 2018’s Hurricane Irma.

They also said nutrient peaks are often due to runoff from agricultural land which can carry excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus into nearby waterways.

Fort Myers resident Caitlin Chase told The Daily Sun that there always seems to be some excuse with Mosaic.

“They seem to be evading a lot of personal responsibility,” Chase said. “During 2017 and 2018 (for example), they blamed it on the storms. To me, its personal responsibility. If your site was discharging those nutrients, don’t blame the storms, blame yourselves.”

Tim Ritchie of Punta Gorda has been fighting with the company over their practices for years now.

“This workshop missed the bar,” Ritchie said. “We didn’t hear enough about radioactive materials (occurring naturally in phosphate). We didn’t hear enough about mercury or arsenic. We don’t hear about the things that are poisoning the (area’s) watershed.”

Image Credits: Sun Photo by Daniel Sutphin (Tim Ritchie of Punta Gorda is in picture)