Adam Cummings’ comments 2011 EPA Conference: Phosphate Mining and the Environment
This document represents my recollection of my comments at the March 28 & 29 EPA Conference in Punta Gorda Florida on the “State of the Science on Phosphate Mining and the Environment” which I am submitting to become part of the public record as requested by the meeting facilitator.
As to your first question, “Is mining affecting the flows of the Peace River?” we do not need to speculate. Charlotte County proved that river flows were affected in court. (Upon returning home I checked my old documents and found on page 72 in paragraph 163 of the attached administrative law judge’s recommended order, “It is also clear that phosphate mining has historically contributed to some extent to decreased stream flow in the Peace River.” Although this order resulted in the Secretary of DEP denying the permit, a later application was approved due to an injudicious settlement by Charlotte County.)
As to your second question, “Is reclamation successful?” During earlier legal proceedings IMC chose 20 reclamation sites and Charlotte County chose 20 reclamation sites for evaluation. Of these 40 long standing reclamation sites, 39 of them no longer met DEP standards. Therefore the reclamation at the time was clearly unsuccessful. The researcher who spoke earlier clearly had it right that unless you can correct the problems in the various strata of the surficial aquifer, you will never get the reclamation right.
Furthermore, one of the things I did notice during this conference was that the economists were looking at later land uses in determining net present value and other economic impacts. In fact there appears to be ever increasing interest in urbanization of reclaimed phosphate lands as this use provided the highest economic return. Unfortunately it appears that the environmental impacts of these later land uses are not being measured as a part of the same study. Either disregard the economic benefit of any later development or include the environmental impacts that will result from that development.
The more prudent course is to consider both. As a County Commissioner I learned that impervious surface is a very important issue when trying to meet TMDL’s. As the percentage of impervious surface in my community increases, the rate of runoff increases which in turn increases the variability of freshwater flows into the estuary. It also increases the pollutant loads since there is less residence time for plants to take up nutrients and less opportunity for other pollutants to be filtered. Obviously this creates water quantity and quality problems. A typical built out urban service area in Southwest Florida can have approximately 50% impervious surface. We have been informed here that a typical successfully reclaimed mine site has about 40% impervious surface in the form of clay settling ponds. If the remaining 60% of the land becomes urbanized with 50% impervious surface that adds an additional 30% impervious surface to the existing 40% impervious surface. If we find ourselves with tens of thousands of acres at 70% impervious surface it is hard to imagine a scenario where we will have a healthy downstream estuary.
Which brings me to my final point. I have been an integral part of this conversation for over 16 years. This has always been viewed as a two step process. We want an AEIS to learn all we can so we can do a better job of managing these impacts. However we have always recognized the need to follow the AEIS with a natural resource management plan. This industry needs to have an overall regulatory plan just like every community must have a comprehensive plan. Industry representatives have told us all for years that phosphate mining is a finite industry in this state. The day will come when all of the economically feasible phosphate has been mined and they will be gone. I want to know that I will still have a healthy vibrant estuary when they are gone. Only with that healthy vibrant estuary can my community have a healthy vibrant economy. We need to have the same assurance from this industry that we are assured from every other economic activity in this state. A successful natural resource management plan including maps of what is and isn’t on the table for consideration of mining permits and the terms under which they would be considered appears to be the most effective way to achieve that public necessity.
At this point I would like to add an additional observation I failed to mention during my comments. Charlotte County and our neighbors spent over $12 million and years of effort to research this issue, improve regulation and enforce existing laws. We gained a great deal of improvements in the management of this resource and the impacts the mining created. Unfortunately after a shift in political winds caused Charlotte County to stop challenging these permits, the very next permit application in the form of the South Fort Meade mine extension undid virtually all of the gains we made. The actions of the industry, the state and the local government stakeholders in this matter have made it perfectly clear that they will make no improvements that are not forced upon them. If the federal government does not enforce the clean water act and other environmental requirements, no one will. We need the EPA and the Army Corp to step up to the plate and ensure the health of this national estuary and our local economy as a result.
Former Charlotte County Commissioner