This time in Florida, the Davids beat Goliath in an environmental battle

After seven years of struggle, some would-be phosphate miners wave white flag

January 26, 2023 7:00 am

An aerial shot of land proposed for a phosphate mine in Northeast Florida. Credit: Jim Tatum/Our Santa Fe River

Because Florida is such an unusual state, we have some unusual museums.

There’s a surreal one in St. Petersburg dedicated to the surrealist art of Salvador Dali. One in Ocala features drag racing — the type with cars, not dressing up — run by champ “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. And one in Miami Beach is called the World Erotic Art Museum. You may be able to find that other kind of drag there.

The museum I’d really like to see, though, is a Florida Museum of Bad Ideas. We could stock that one pretty easily, and not just from the goofy parts of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ speeches.

Such a museum would feature the plans for the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, which was supposed to slice the state in half without any concern about our aquifer. Another display should be a model of the proposed Everglades Jetport, which would have put the world’s biggest airport in the middle of what’s now the Big Cypress National Preserve.

And we’d definitely want an exhibit featuring the phosphate mine proposed for rural Bradford and Union counties, where it would have ruined the New River and Santa Fe River.

Fortunately, as with the canal and the jetport, someone finally realized this plan was about as smart as snapping a leash on a wild gator to take him for a walk. Last week, after seven long years of struggle, the owners dropped their request for a mining permit.

Carol Mosley. Credit: Carol Mosely

Among the opponents of the proposed mine, something like Martha Reeves’ “Dancing in the Streets” ensued. As this is a rural area, though, it was more like twirling around on a two-lane blacktop.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around everything,” Merillee Jipson, a director of the environmental group Our Santa Fe River, told me. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Carol Mosley, founder of the Bradford Environmental Forum, was at the commission meeting last week when Bradford County Manager Scott Kornegay announced the miners from HPS II were waving a white flag.

She’d been attending commission meetings every week for years, often clashing with the officials in charge of approving the mine. Now that it’s over, she’s a lot more popular.

“The crazy thing is that I went from being everyone’s enemy to everyone’s darling,” said Mosley, the former coordinator of nature studies at Miami-Dade College before she retired.

She told me that after the meeting, one of the Bradford County commissioners even gave her a hug. You wouldn’t have seen that happening back when this started.

Three hundred people

The four families behind HPS II, the phosphate mining company, didn’t return my emails or social media messages.

Their corporate website is gone. Their Facebook page is moribund. Their attorney, Jim Taylor, has left town and apparently can’t be reached, which reminded me of another Martha Reeves song: “Oh, Jimmy Mack, when are you coming back?”

Fortunately for the future curators of the Bad Ideas Museum, the would-be miners once shot a feel-good video about the project that’s still available on Vimeo.

When I say “feel-good,” I mean it’s like Ken Burns Lite. It features pictures of trees, cows, and small kids smiling at the camera, a soundtrack full of gentle acoustic guitar and an elderly gent talking about how long his family has worked the land.

Jack Hazen via HPS II Vimeo recording

“I was born and raised here,” says Jack Hazen, one of the H’s in HPS. “My father owned the land, and he had bought it from my grandfather. And I’m passing it along to my kids and my grandkids.”

Hazen’s drawl about his family’s history casts a spell, like a real-life version of “A Land Remembered.” The next line breaks it: “We’ve worked it through the years, and we are planning on continuing to work it — after the completion of this project.”

The Vimeo video gives you a brief glimpse of the Hazen, Howard, Pritchett, and Shadd families conferring together. Those families own thousands of acres north of Gainesville. They formed a partnership to dig up the phosphate under their land.

The video never quite gets around to telling you that the company wanted to mine some 7,400 acres across Union and Bradford counties. They wanted to send in machines to cut down trees, tear out vegetation, and dig up sand and clay going down 35 to 40 feet below the surface to extract phosphate for use in fertilizer.

Half of the mining would take place in Union County, the other half in Bradford. The digging would be on either side of the New River, which flows into the Santa Fe.

Apparently, the landowners thought that everyone would shout hurray and welcome their plans with open arms. They were wrong.

“When the Union County Commission held their first meeting about it, 300 people showed up,” Jipson told me.

A lot of Davids vs. Goliath

Becky Parker has lived in Union County all her life. She reads the local paper regularly. One day she picked up the paper and learned that the pasture next door to her was about to change dramatically.

“I read about how the mine was supposed to create 100 jobs, and I saw who the players were, and I thought, ‘This is not good,’” Parker told me.

Becky Parker. Credit: Becky Parker

She’d seen what phosphate mining had done to White Springs over in Hamilton County, she explained: “It’s kind of a shell of itself now.”

Parker found a good-sized map of the area and took it to one of Union County’s commissioners. She asked him to show her where the mining would take place.

“He puts the map across the hood of my car, and he starts putting X’s all over the map, one of which was right in my backyard,” she recalled. “And it straddled the New River. I just could not believe it.”

Parker worked in medical transcription, but her son was a fisheries biologist for the state wildlife commission. She showed him the map and told him what was happening. He agreed that it would be bad news for the river and everyone living near it.

That galvanized her to start Citizens Against Phosphate Mining. They were a bunch of little Davids lining up against the Goliaths of that section of Florida, people she called “the big names here.”

Looking for allies, Parker called Jipson, who told her what steps to take.

“I started giving her the playbook,” Jipson said. “Try to get the community involved. Have the citizens meet every week … put up billboards, hand out brochures.”

Jipson said she brought in Jim Tatum, a fellow director of Our Santa Fe River and a retired professor with a doctorate in Spanish literature — someone familiar with the madness of tilting at windmills. Nevertheless, he started recruiting other opponents to take on the proposed mine, which he called “a rich old man’s dream of getting even richer.”

Soon larger groups, such as the Sierra Club, had joined the fight. Meanwhile, Parker and her allies set up tables outside the local grocery and the Dollar Store every weekend, informing the public about the danger. They held spaghetti dinners. They mailed out flyers.

Soon the Union County commissioners jumped aboard the bandwagon.

“They could see the hazards too,” Parker said.

The little county that could

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: Union County is Florida’s smallest county.

Like Bradford, Union is considered part of the “Iron Triangle,” where the main source of employment is the state prison system. But that Lilliputian county stood up strong to the big, bad mining company.

The commissioners couldn’t simply reject the mine. That would trigger a lawsuit. Instead, they slowed things down. In 2016, they voted for a year-long moratorium on mining permits while they updated their land development regulations.

They renewed the moratorium in 2017. But when they voted in 2018 to extend the moratorium for another year, the miners lost patience. They filed a nearly $300 million lawsuit under the state’s Bert Harris Act, which I call the “Property Owners Get To Do Whatever They Want No Matter What Law.”

Merillee Jipson Credit: Our Santa Fe River

If that seems like a humongous amount of money, you’re right — it’s more than 41 times the size of Union County’s annual budget. The suit was designed to punish the county for daring to defy these influential property owners.

Meanwhile, another county, Alachua, had jumped into the fray. Its commissioners voted to spend more than $600,000 on a legal challenge.

“Property rights … do not include putting at risk the Santa Fe River and New River, which belong to the people of Florida and NOT to HPS II Enterprises,” Alachua commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said in 2019.

He warned that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection would “protect industry at the expense of our water resources.” No matter how often mining companies may promise to follow the law, he said, “that does not bring back our ruined rivers.”

The only county that seemed eager to accommodate the miners was Bradford County.

Bradford commissioners are an accommodating bunch. This is the Florida county that gained notoriety for displaying monuments to both the Ten Commandments and atheism on its courthouse lawn in Starke.

Bradford was going full steam ahead on approving the mining permit — until it wasn’t.

‘But they lose’

The Bradford phosphate battle showed up in an unlikely place in 2018: the PBS News Hour. The report. was headlined “Battle over phosphate mining roils small Florida town.”

Hazen, interviewed by PBS, contended his neighbors were worried over nothing.

“We’re not going to contaminate the rivers,” he insisted. “We’re not going to contaminate anything. I’m telling you, this is a clean operation. And, of course, these environmentalists, they fight this stuff, but they lose.”

Despite Hazen’s bold talk, though, he and his partners had no experience with phosphate. Even more worrisome, they planned to use a new kind of mining technique that had never been tried.

Is it any wonder, then, that the Bradford County Commission voted 5-0 to hire a consultant to review their plans?

I have read the 2020 consultant’s report, or rather I tried. It was tough without having someone to translate Hydrologist-to-English. Still, there were some sentences that got my attention.

One said, “A structural collapse due to karst condition could introduce mine cut water into the Upper Floridan Aquifer.”

In other words, a sinkhole could open up and dump pollution into the underground supply of fresh water. That’s exactly what happened with a mine in Lake Wales in 2016.

Another part talked about how the mined soil would be put back in the ground after mining and said it was likely to begin sinking. It warned that this “will change the surface-water runoff, which can affect stream flow and wetlands.”

The prospect of sinking land was just one of the things that wound up sinking the mine.

Not inevitable after all

According to Tatum, the miners made a lot of other mistakes.

“They were … unable to produce a viable master mining plan, they wasted time and credibility in promising new mining techniques which did not work, they were fined for drilling dozens of wells without permission, they drilled test wells on other people’s land, thinking it was theirs, and family members were caught illegally draining wetlands,” he said.

Every error further infuriated their neighbors and cost them support.

Jim Tatum. Credit: Our Santa Fe River

But for reasons that remain unclear, Bradford County officials sat on the damaging consultant’s report for more than two years. It’s as if by ignoring it, they could pretend it didn’t doom the mine.

Finally, Mosley tracked down the now-retired consultant and got a copy of his report. That was around the time that Bradford’s county manager-slash-attorney — yes, he filled both jobs — left for a job in another part of the state. I tried to contact him but he ignored me the way he ignored that report.

Mosley prodded his replacement and some newly elected commissioners to tell the public what was going on with the stalled mine application. She could see the tide turning.

Back during the PBS report, Hazen had bragged that their mine not only shouldn’t be stopped but that their plans were, like a certain Marvel movie villain, inevitable.

“They can’t stop us from mining, because we got property rights,” he said. “You don’t govern what I can do with my land. When we get to where somebody is governing what I can do with my land, we in bad shape in this country.”

But last June, HPS II dropped its big Bert Harris Act lawsuit against Union County — a sign that “property rights” would not be the deciding factor. Suddenly another Martha Reeves hit. “Nowhere to Run,” seems appropriate.

In December, the corporate board of HPS II quietly voted to dissolve the company. They didn’t notify anyone, as if embarrassed. Then, on Jan. 19, in response to the county manager’s inquiry, the company’s attorney sent a terse letter withdrawing its application.

The battle was over.

Fights like this one go on all over Florida, especially with our pro-development governor ruling the roost. I’d rather that these dopey schemes wind up in the Bad Ideas Museum than see Joni Mitchell’s prediction come true about putting the last tree in a tree museum.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.