By Martin Vassolo
After roughly two months of public debate, the Union County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to ban all mining permits in the county for at least one year.
While not explicitly stated, the ruling is aimed at a proposal from HPS Enterprises, a local phosphate company with plans to mine about 3,626 acres in the county for phosphate rock.
The company has also stated it plans to mine about 3,805 acres in neighboring Bradford County, although it has not yet applied for any permits from either county.
At Monday’s commission meeting in the Hal Y. Maines Community Center in Lake Butler, the commissioners heard public comment before making their decision.
The crowd, most of whom vocally opposed the phosphate proposal, erupted in applause as the decision was announced: The county will halt all permits for mines until it has time to study the effects and logistics of phosphate mining in the county.
But HPS spokeswoman Mandy Wettstein said her company anticipated Monday’s vote against the phosphate proposal.
“We’re fine with that decision,” she said, adding that the decision will not halt the company’s plans.
Wettstein said HPS looks forward to working with Union County commissioners to aide in their research of the effects of mining, effects company heads have said will be contained.
Union County resident Eric Thomas, who has led opposition against mining by HPS, could not attend the meeting but said he felt relieved after hearing about the commissioners’ vote.
“I was just extremely proud of our county, especially our commissioners,” he said. “I thought they made a very wise decision, and it made me proud that Union County stood against this proposal and was wise enough to take the time to review it further.”
After first hearing about HPS’s proposed mine about two months ago, Thomas and his mother, Becky Parker, formed the group Citizens Against Phosphate Mining in Union and Bradford Counties.
The group’s reach has been instrumental in bringing attention to the plight of many concerned residents in Union and Bradford counties, Thomas said.
About 2,450 people have signed the group’s online petition, and about 1,000 people have liked its Facebook page, which has functioned as a way to spread news about the proposal and mobilize residents.
Thomas said he is hopeful his group, which was formed in Union County, can convince the Bradford County Board of Commissioners to take a similar stance against the proposal.
He said if HPS succeeds in building a phosphate mine in Bradford, Union County residents would eventually feel its effects, Thomas said.
Some argue that a phosphate mine would jeopardize public health and the county’s water supply, along with devastating the rural environment there.
“I hope that we can urge Bradford County to understand that their activities will have far-reaching impacts on their neighbors,” Thomas said.
Representatives from HPS, which is comprised of four wealthy landowners in both counties, have repeatedly said that their proposal would do far more good than harm.
The excavated land would return to normal, the water supply would be untainted and a huge economic stimulus would lift both counties, they’ve said.
“They’re looking to meet a certain standard,” Wettstein said.
Thomas said a provision to permanently ban mining should be added to the county’s November ballot.
But if mining does someday come to the county, he said, it should be regulated and overseen by a citizen advisory board made up of educated locals with no ties to HPS or the broader phosphate industry.
Thomas said he wants HPS representatives to know that his group’s movement will not easily fade.
“I hope they understand that regardless of what they may do,” he said, “they will always have opposition to this operation in Union County.”