Activists Target Important Agricultural Fertilizer

Published December 23, 2010

Environmental activist groups are seeking to block the mining of phosphate, an important fertilizer for global crop production, in a central Florida location in which most of the nation’s phosphate is produced.

Environmental Impact Debated
The Sierra Club and other environmental activist groups argue plans by Mosaic Co. to expand its current mining operations in Hardee County would harm the area’s water supply. The activist groups succeeded last July in getting a federal court to issue an injunction blocking the proposed mining expansion, and Mosaic has appealed the decision.

The opposing groups are now battling over phosphate mining in the court of public opinion.

“We’re trying to ensure that it’s done more responsibly in the future,” Percy Angelo, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s phosphate committee in Florida, told the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 30).

The proposed mining project, known as the South Fort Meade extension, would extend Mosaic’s phosphate mine in central Florida’s fabled Bone Valley to include an additional 11,000 acres. Minnesota-based Mosaic, the world’s largest producer of phosphate fertilizer, points out the project has been reviewed and approved by 14 different federal, state, and local agencies since 2003.

Key to Florida Economy
Phosphate mining has been an integral part of central Florida’s economy since the first deposits were extracted by pick and shovel in 1883. In the ensuing 127 years, phosphate mining has become increasingly sophisticated.

Today, giant cranes, known as draglines, scoop out the phosphate ore which lies 15 to 50 feet below the ground. A multiphase process separates the mix of sand, clay, and phosphate rock, and then the phosphate is treated with sulfuric acid at a chemical plant to produce fertilizer.

Under a Florida law enacted in 1975, phosphate companies are required to reclaim each acre of land they mine and replace wetlands. Mosaic says approximately 95 percent of the 30,000 acres it has reclaimed in the past decade have been converted to pasture land for more than 4,500 head of cattle.

Supplies 1/4 of World’s Phosphate
The area where the phosphate is being mined is called “Bone Valley” for a reason. The nutrient-rich fossil bed was once home to mastodons, saber-tooth cats, forty-foot sharks, and other long-extinct creatures. In addition to fertilizer, Florida’s phosphates are used in making animal food supplements, toothpaste, soft drinks, and metal coatings.

Florida provides 75 percent of the phosphorous used by U.S. farmers and accounts for 25 percent of global production. China and Morocco control more than half of the world’s phosphate reserves outside the United States.

The delay in extending the Mosaic mine couldn’t have come at a worse time for the hard-pressed residents of central Florida. Phosphate mining provides about 4,000 direct jobs in the four counties where mines are in operation., and the miners’ wages are among the highest in the area. With an unemployment rate of 15 percent, Hardee County would likely suffer further economic dislocation if phosphate mining is curtailed.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is undertaking a review of phosphate mining in central Florida, and the results are expected in 18 months. Given the pivotal role phosphate mining plays in growing crops to feed people around the world, and the industry’s contribution to the local economy, EPA’s review and the ongoing court battle are being followed closely.

‘Lifeblood’ of Ag Production
“Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium fertilizers are the lifeblood of production agriculture wherever it’s practiced. Growing plants need to draw those nutrients out of the soil, not only to thrive but merely to live,” said Greg Conko, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and cofounder of the AgBioWorld Foundation. “If those nutrients are not replenished, crop yields would decline rapidly and eventually disappear.”

This, Conko says, raises the question of the viability of alternatives to phosphate fertilizers.

“Fertilizer opponents argue that we should get by with animal manures and so-called ‘green manures,’ nitrogen-fixing plants like clover that get plowed into the soil instead of being harvested,” he explains. “But green manures and animal manures produce runoff and groundwater-leaching at rates similar to mined fertilizers, and they’re vastly more expensive for farmers to use, which drives up food costs for consumers.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington. D.C.