Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sierra Club Presentation to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)

Presentation to USACE Phosphate Mining Workshop 
Lakeland, FL
October 6, 2010

Phosphate strip mining presents a number of serious environmental issues; a few of them are addressed here but we call the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to the several letters detailing our concerns sent to them on behalf of Sierra Club and other groups with regard to the urgent need for a thorough region-wide cumulative Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to be completed before any more of Central Florida is opened to further phosphate strip mining.

Destruction of Wetlands
The frequent claim is that phosphate miners replace the wetlands destroyed by mining with
man-made wetlands that, it is sometimes claimed, are even better than what was there originally. There is much evidence that this is a just a myth. Wetland restoration takes place years, sometimes decades, after the original destruction. There is insufficient follow up to ensure that restoration is established and that the wetland vegetation is appropriate and not overwhelmed by undesirable species. And there is substantial agreement that some kinds of wetlands, such as forested wetlands, cannot be restored.

The restoration which does occur simply does not address the hydrogeology of the site: the groundwater systems which feed our wetlands and our rivers and lakes. And no testing is done, before or after mining and restoration, to determine losses in the groundwater flow regime.

Clay Settling Areas and Their Ground and Surface Water Impacts
Clay settling areas are the ponds used by the phosphate industry to dispose of clay slimes which are a waste from mining. They are deep and occupy a significant part of the mined site. While we understand there are current efforts to minimize their extent, past state reports indicate they can be 40-60%of the site. Studies, including several by the US Geological Survey which already provided to the Corps, have shown that clay settling areas have a substantial impact on ground and surface water flows; basically, water does not readily flow through clay, so that these CSAs can and do limit the flows which feed our rivers. The USGS has identified CSAs and other mining disruptions as a substantial contributor to the loss of flow in the Peace River and it is clear that this is a cumulative impact of mining activity. While CSAs are sometimes argued to be “reclaimed” we challenge the idea that a CSA is anything other than a landfill and we believe the Corps should clearly distinguish between property which is reclaimed as uplands or wetlands, however, inadequately, and property which remains as a CSA, even if closed. Such CSAs should not be considered “reclaimed.”

Requests for the EIS
We believe the Corps should require ground and surface water studies before, during and after mining to be sure that water flows and volumes, as well as water quality are maintained. We believe that the Corps should inspect previously reclaimed wetlands to insure that reclamation is completed properly and that reclaimed wetlands are functioning as promised. We believe that independent studies should be done to test the effectiveness of wetland restoration methods and to identify ways to attempt to restore groundwater flow functions. We further urge that Corps permitting should be done in phases so that corrections can be made if it appears that wetland, surface or groundwater restoration is not successful. And, as some counties have considered, we urge that wetland function and the rate of restoration be ensured by requiring that at least 75% of site wetlands be functioning at all times, creating a real incentive to be sure that restoration is as important to the miner as mining.

The mining community tells us that spills from CSAs and gypstacks are a thing of the past. In fact there is substantial indication that they are a constant threat. As recently as December of 2009 a sinkhole developed in a PCS gypstack in northern Florida. In 2004 spills were experienced at the Riverview gypstack. That was a year of heavy rain and the miners point to the rain as the cause of the problems. The fact is that Florida is a state that experiences heavy rainfall events on a seasonal basis (5-6 months of the year) and tropical storms and hurricanes on occasion. Therefore spills from CSAs and gypstacks remain a real risk.

In the case of the 2004 rains the Florida DEP stepped in, not with enforcement, but with a consent order to relieve the mining companies of their water management obligations. Under these circumstances the Corps must consider the likelihood of spills as part of the impacts which it must evaluate in an EIS.

CSA and gypstack spills have enormous consequences for the downstream environment and for the liabilities which may be faced by the mining companies. Surely, before the Gulf oil disaster this summer, no one questioned the financial ability of BP to deal with any problem. Sadly now, we know that no company is so large that financial concerns don’t come into play. The spill and spill potential at Piney Point is $200 million and counting, and that is leaving aside issues of private liability. The Corps must do a realistic assessment of the impacts and costs of spills and discharges and the ability of the mining industry to cover them.

Water Use
The public is told by the mining companies and the Corps that mining recycles over 95 percent of its water. As anyone with any common sense knows, percentages are the bane of real information. They do not tell you how much water is withdrawn or how much is used. Those actual numbers are truly staggering.

Just one of the mining companies currently has a request in place for a combined mega water use permit to pump 76 million gallons per day. That usage is more than 3 times the entire use of the Peace River Manasota Water authority downstream. In its downstream impact that usage must be added to the losses caused by the interruption of groundwater and surface water flows due to clay settling areas and mining itself. When downstream communities and environmental groups raise alarms about water impacts due to mining, these are the kinds of numbers and impacts they are considering.

It is time for the mining companies and the Corps to be fully honest about water usage. Don’t give us percentages which mean nothing. Tell us about actual water usage and water disruption volumes and prepare to have a real discussion about the environmental effects.

Mining Impact Alternatives
We expect the EIS to have a discussion about mining alternatives, including the need to mine phosphate in relation to legitimate US demand. But we also expect that the Corps will take a real look at alternative mining methods: mining equipment which will spare wetlands, methods which will reduce the use of clay settling areas, and methods which will reduce the wasteful use of water for transport. As it stands now, corporate miners are mining not only the phosphate, but our wetlands and our waters and using them, without fee, to transport their product.

This is just one part of a huge public subsidy to the industry which must be recognized in any credible EIS.

Author: Percy Angelo, SC FL Phosphate Chair
Presenter: Cris Costello