On Monday afternoon in Starke, during a meeting about a proposed phosphate mine, there wasn’t uproar — just applause — coming from the gathered crowd.
Unlike their neighbors across the New River, the group of about 50 residents seemed impressed with the pitch from HPS Enterprises LLC, a phosphate mining company looking to dig up about 7,400 acres in Union and Bradford counties.
Monday’s town-hall-style meeting, held at Bradford High School, featured representatives from the company explaining their proposal for about an hour.
In an industry marred by environmental entanglements, HPS promised innovation with less water use, quicker land recovery and heaps of economic stimulus.
“We will make sure that what we’ve told the people is gonna happen — is gonna happen,” HPS board member Jack Hazen said.
But first, the company needs a handful of permits, starting on the county level. The company hasn’t started applying yet, though, as it continues to hold meetings with Bradford and Union residents.
Phosphate is used primarily as a fertilizer. Florida accounts for about two-thirds of the U.S. supply of the mineral and nearly one-quarter of the global market, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
For the most part, attendees Monday seemed pleased with the proposed mine, applauding company representatives after they spoke and asking very few questions.
By contrast, the public hearing last Monday in Lake Butler, Union County’s seat, was strikingly confrontational and lasted about four hours.
Many residents there argued that phosphate mining may jeopardize their health and water supply – claims that HPS has denied.
No permits have been filed yet, but Union County’s Board of County Commissioners will vote Monday, March 21, on whether to ban mining permits for a year.
Paul Still, a supervisor at the Bradford Soil and Water Conservation District, said protesters have spread mostly misinformation in their Citizens Against Phosphate Mining in Union and Bradford Counties campaign.
“They just haven’t done their homework yet,” said Still, who noted that he is not affiliated with HPS.
The key, Still said, is in the company’s promise to begin reclamation, or restoration, of the mined land within 90 days of digging. Historically, reclamation has been a long, drawn-out process.
On the economic-growth front, HPS explains on its website that its operation is projected to create 181 jobs and $72.7 million in new property taxes for both counties over 20 to 30 years.
How the company will keep its promises, however, remains to be seen.
“They would have to convince me of everything they’ve said,” Bradford County resident Edwin Prevatt said.
Prevatt said he would like to see HPS reference independent research when touting the benefits of its plan.
Throughout Monday’s presentation, company representatives addressed concerns regarding health risks, environmental damage and potential water contamination or depletion.
But of all the studies they referenced during their presentation, most of them came from the same source: the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research.
Additionally, HPS’s lead researcher, University of Florida professor Hassan El-Shall, has been funded in the past by the institute and Mosaic, a large phosphate company with a questionable past.
In October, the Environmental Protection Agency forced Mosaic to pay a $2 billion settlement after an investigation into the company’s mishandling of the harmful chemicals used in fertilizer processing throughout Florida and Louisiana.
HPS argues that its mines will be different in that they won’t process the phosphate they mine; the byproducts of processing phosphate are among the leading causes behind any risks of contamination.
In the upcoming weeks, the company will run a pilot program on an abandoned mine in Bartow, Florida, to test its reclamation methods.
If the reclamation does not work, representatives said the company will not move forward with its Bradford and Union proposal. However, they’re confident it will succeed.
On Monday, as the town hall meeting began in Starke, Lake Butler City Council members voted to support a ban on mining in their city. This was somewhat of a symbolic vote to support Union County commissioners before their all-important March 21 vote.
HPS will host a town-hall meeting at the Hal Y. Maines Community Center at 155 NW 3rd St. about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, the company’s last chance to sway the Union County populace before March 21.
Jack Schmedeman, a management consultant working as project manager for HPS, said people need to educate themselves about phosphate mining before arriving at any conclusions.
“Listen to both sides,” he said, “and do your own independent research.”