By Martin Vassolo
After weeks of public outcry and corporate silence, the company behind a proposal to mine about 7,400 acres of land in Union and Bradford counties has released specific details about its proposal for the first time.
HPS Enterprises LLC, a company comprised of four land-owning families, has proposed to mine about 60 million tons of phosphate rock for the next 20 to 30 years, said project manager Jack Schmedeman.
HPS represents members of the Hazen, Howard, Pritchett and Shadd families, who own the parcels in Union and Bradford Counties.
Their proposal – if approved by the county, state and federal governments – would create 181 jobs and eventually raise $72.7 million in property taxes for both counties, according to projections from an economic impact study available on HPS’s new website.
And while traditional dragline machinery would be used to mine the phosphate roughly 20 feet underground, Schmedeman said the mining operation will stand apart from others in the phosphate industry.
Phosphate is used as a fertilizer, and Florida accounts for 60 percent of U.S. supply to farmers and 15 percent of the global market, according to one industry website.
He said HPS’s mines would use about half the amount of water most phosphate mines use, and workers would begin to reclaim, or recover, the disturbed land within months of digging, as opposed to decades.
Additionally, Schmedeman said HPS’s proposal does not include plans to process the mined phosphate rocks, meaning hazardous byproducts like phosphogypsum would not be a problem.
“The things that the folks seem to be most concerned about aren’t even going to exist in this operation,” said Mandy Wettstein, a spokeswoman for HPS.
If all falls into place, construction could begin in 2017 and mining in 2018.
With many residents angry over the lack of communication between the public and HPS, the company’s recent information release comes at an opportune time.
In the coming weeks, a series of public hearings and town hall meetings will allow residents and HPS officials to discuss the proposal.
The Union County Board of Commissioners will hear both sides of the matter at 6 p.m. Monday inside Lake Butler Community Center and again March 21 at the same time and place.
After the second hearing, the board will vote on whether or not to ban phosphate mining in the county, a request made by residents at a hearing last month.
HPS will host a town hall meeting for Bradford County at 5:30 p.m. on March 14 in Starke and second meeting on March 16 in Lake Butler.
Becky Parker doesn’t want to be a guinea pig.
After spending most of her life in Union County, the 54-year-old spends most of her days as the leader of a ragtag bunch of protesting residents rapidly gaining momentum in its fight against HPS.
Parker leads the group with her son, Eric Thomas, a former fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
She fears the proposal would jeopardize property values, environmental stability – and her peace of mind.
Sitting in her home in Lake Butler, a city of about 2,000 in Union County, Parker remembers the summers she would spend out in the country. With a mine in the area, the green plains of her memory would more closely resemble dirt dunes.
HPS’s recent revelations have not eased Parker’s fears at all; they’ve only served to aggravate them.
Although the company was officially registered in Dec. 2014, news of its mining proposal was not made public until less than two months ago – on Jan. 21 – featured in an article in the Union County Times, a weekly newsletter.
“If this is so revolutionary and so eco-friendly, then why so secretive?” Parker said. “Why is everything so secretive?”
Wettstein said HPS could not make any announcements until adequate research had been done.
“And as we’ve gotten more of the facts together,” Wettstein said, “we’re now ready to begin that communication.”
Last week, a color-coded map released by the company revealed the specific areas proposed for mining: about 3,805 green-shaded acres in Bradford and about 3,626 blue-shaded acres in Union.
The land lies on both sides of the New River, a tributary of the Santa Fe River.
Wettstein said HPS would mine about 300 acres at a time and then transport the extracted phosphate rock through a conveyor-belt system leading to a beneficiation plant, which would purify the minerals – separating them from the sand and clay.
Schmedeman estimated the operation would run 20 hours per day, five to six days per week.
Parker said she lives a couple of miles from one proposed mining area.
Despite any economic benefits that may result from the proposal, property values in the area would likely plummet, forcing homeowners to move away, she said.
Wettstein did not agree with that assumption.
Wettstein said the opposition group spread undue fear among locals without knowing any of the facts.
“With a lot of the allegations that they’ve put forth that are not based in fact on this project, they’ve begun to engage, really, in fear mongering on this,” Wettstein said.
Parker said the basic facts were there.
“As far as going on misinformation – no, I’m not going on misinformation; I’m going on what I know has to happen in this process,” Parker said. “How they remove it from the dirt, or put it on a conveyor belt, or put it on a rocket and ship it to the moon – I don’t care.”
“It’s still a very invasive thing that they’re doing here, and even scarier, it’s a pilot program that’s never been tried anywhere before,” she continued. “And we don’t want to try it here at our expense.”
Wettstein said the public hearing Monday will be the ideal opportunity talk facts.
“The families are looking forward now to putting out and disseminating the information and the facts about this project,” Wettstein said.
Looking forward to March 21, she said HPS is hopeful the Union County Board of Commissioners will vote in its favor.
“When you’re an elected official, you know, you get bombarded from all sides sometimes,” she said, “but hopefully the facts are gonna speak for themselves.”