By Martin Vassolo
A crowd of outraged local residents pushed back against an ambitious, multi-million-dollar mining company in Union C0unty last night.
During a special hearing in Lake Butler, residents and company representatives argued their cases against and for a long-term phosphate mine in the county, a mine that would operate on about 3,626 acres of privately held land.
As of now, no permits have been requested.
Residents argued the mine would bring health risks, lowered property values and a vulnerable aquifer.
Representatives promised economic growth and denied adverse effects, arguing that oversight from the government would do its job.
“Tell that to Flint, Michigan,” one resident yelled.
Four hours and loads of hostility later, the locals got their way.
The Board of Commissioners – acting Monday night as the Planning and Zoning Board, and the Local Planning Agency – decided to vote on March 21 to approve or deny banning all mining permits for one year.
The mining company, HPS Enterprises LLC, which is comprised of landowning families from both Union and Bradford Counties, would need three permits from the Union County Board of Commissioners for its proposal to become reality. Afterward, the company would apply for permits from the state and Federal government.
If approved, construction on the mine would likely begin in 2017 and mining in 2018.
HPS will hold a town hall meeting at 5:30 p.m. on March 16 in Lake Butler, inside the Hal Y. Maines Community Center, the same venue as Monday’s hearing.
“We think that this is a great opportunity for the county,” said Phillip Pritchett, an HPS board member.
If the Board votes against the ban on mining, Union County resident Patrick Miller plans to move away and take his kids with him.
“I’m selling my property even if I take a loss,” he said. “I’m leaving.”
He said the proposed phosphate mine would devastate the area.
HPS representatives said the operation would run 20 hours per day, 5 days per week. Although the representatives said the mine would be innovative in its reduced water usage and prompt reclaiming, or land renovation, Miller said he can’t be convinced.
“No matter how much you polish a turd, like my granddaddy taught me, it’s still a turd,” he said.
The residents, who filled the Community Center Monday night, found strength in numbers by joining the Citizens Against Phosphate Mining in Union and Bradford Counties. The group is led by a mother-son duo, Becky Parker and Eric Thomas, a current medical student at Florida State University and a former fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Since forming about a month ago, the group has 2,274 signatures on its online petition and 870 likes on its Facebook page.
“We clearly have the community support,” Thomas said.
HPS still has a proposal to mine about 3,805 acres in Bradford County, but the Union County decision would have no bearing on that.
No permit has been requested from Bradford and no special hearings have been called by its Board of Commissioners.
The company will hold a town hall meeting at Starke High School, at 5:30 p.m. on March 14.