Union County Board Rules Against Mining; Second Vote Needed for Moratorium

Cathy Conner, 60, lives in Lake Butler. If HPS is allowed to start mining, she said, the after effects would outlive her. "It would devastate me," she said. "I have a grandchild, I won't be around when they say this is going to be done; I won't know what's going to happen to her." (Briana Erickson/WUFT News)

Jennifer Clemons grew up in a phosphate pit.

As the daughter of a dragline operator in Hardee County, Clemons said the mining industry raised her well.

If approved, a 10,704-acre mining project in Union and Bradford Counties would serve a similar function to residents there, she said.

Monday night in Lake Butler, however, the Union County Board of Commissioners ruled unanimously against phosphate mining, but must return on April 18 for the second and final vote on a one-year moratorium.

The yearlong ban would give commissioners time to thoroughly research the proposal – set forth by the local mining company HPS Enterprises – and perhaps revise some of the language in the Union County Comprehensive Plan, which designates virtually all land there as open to mining.

If Union County does vote against the project, that would not affect the proposal for a mine in Bradford County.

During Monday’s meeting, about 20 residents spoke in favor of the ban while about three spoke against it, including Clemons.

“It’s up to you people at the county level to get this right,” said Whitey Markle, the conservation chair at the Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club. “Don’t rely on the State of Florida; they’re not gonna do it for you.”

HPS has proposed to mine for about 20 to 30 years, excavating roughly 60 million tons of phosphate rock from about 40 feet below ground.

Large draglines would be used to reach the rock, which would later be transported by rail car to a beneficiation plant where the rock would be separated from sand and clay before being shipped away. The mine would likely run 24 hours per day, 5 to 6 days per week.

Four local families – Hazen, Howard, Pritchett and Shaad – are behind the plan.

Opponents of the phosphate project said the phosphate mine would risk their health and that of local forests and water ways, primarily the New River, which flows downstream into the Santa Fe River.

Representatives of HPS have argued that their proposal will be both ecologically and economically friendly, creating close to 200 jobs and using half the water as traditional mines.

But speakers Monday argued the company has already violated their trust.

The Gainesville Sun reported that a well subcontractor for HPS dug more than 3 dozen groundwater monitoring wells without obtaining a permit – he was later charged $454.

Additionally, John L. Shaad of Shaad Properties was issued a notice of violation on March 15 after the Suwannee Water Management District discovered that large portions of Shaad’s property – including wetlands – were being illegally altered.

Jack Schmedeman, a management consultant working as project manager for HPS, said the violations should not negatively sway public perception. The Shaad violation occurred on land that has not been planned for mining in HPS’s proposal, and the well violation was promptly taken care of when the contractor later applied for the necessary permitting.

Frieda Kassetas, a Union County resident and opponent of the proposal, said there’s nothing HPS can say or do to change her mind.

“I feel like Pied Piper’s here telling you a story that you wanna hear so that you’ll follow them – but at the end, all you have is disaster,” she said.

She fears the mine, if approved, would jeopardize the well-being of her family and community.

Julian Hazen, an HPS representative, said after the meeting that even if the ban does move forward, the proposal will not die in Union County.

“I have to tell you from the tone of the meeting the moratorium probably will pass,” he said, “but that won’t stop the project.”

With emotions running high on both sides of the argument, Hazen said he hoped for objective review from the commissioners and their constituents.

“I think that at some point, facts will overshadow emotions,” he said.

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About Martin Vassolo

Martin is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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