July 22, 2012

Manatee County Commission Approved Phosphate Mining Expansion

Back in March, the Manatee County Commission decided to vote on a proposed expansion of Wingate Creek phosphate mine. The final permit was approved in June, even as a draft of a regional environmental study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was still receiving feedback. The draft looks at the impact of all the proposed phosphate mining in Manatee, Sarasota, Hardee, Hillsborough, Polk, and Desoto counties. Public comment is open until the end of July. But, Manatee County Commission has already approved the Wingate Creek expansion. Some say this is due to past threats from Mosaic that they will sue for lost revenue if they don't get their permit.

Occupy Bradenton took up the cause against the expansion back in February. There were no shortage of reasons to vote against the permit and folks were happy to talk about it.

The ever-vigilant Sierra Club has started up a Water Sentinels Program, nationwide. This program seeks to defend our country's waterways from misuse and pollution by training citizens in water quality monitoring techniques and education. Armed with such resources, citizens can hold public agencies accountable for Clean Water laws and regulations. Several dozen volunteers have already enlisted and will be trained to accurately test water around the region. At Wingate Creek, the water will be monitored monthly during the first year of active mining.

If you want to let the Army Corps know your thoughts on this, you can comment here. By way of example, here is my feedback. And here is a wonderful guest column that is just as relevant today as when it was written in February.

More Info:

July 20, 2012

Phosphate Strip-Mining in Central Florida

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is inviting you to let them know what you think about the environmental impact of extending phosphate mining in Central Florida. The Sierra Club already let them know by filing suit in federal court and winning one battle with a nice settlement back in February. I started to read the draft document that the Army Corps had put together, and it just smacked of a whitewash. I stopped reading, probed my memory for phosphate mining disasters, did some research, and prepared the following comment.


Background

The environmental downsides of the phosphate industry have been well-enumerated over the years. The horrendous pollution, the intense water usage, groundwater contamination, radioactive discharge, and the inability to restore the land are all well-documented. No amount of whitewashing by the phosphate mining industry can cover this up. If you think they make a strong case and that miracle-solutions are available, then you have not reviewed the history of phosphate mining in Florida nor the more recent finding, this past spring, of two-headed fish in Idaho streams contaminated by selenium runoff from phosphate operations.

The Army Corps of Engineers has produced an environmental report – its “Draft Areawide Environmental Impact Statement on Phosphate Mining in the Central Florida Phosphate District.” It is over 1,000 pages in length. The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports that "parts of the document even suggest that mining, which leaves behind waste-holding ponds, improves the environment by providing more forage areas for birds." Several years ago, the EPA said that what was needed was an analysis of the cumulative impact of current and future mines for the entire watershed, including downstream counties. Several years and over 1,000 pages later, the Army Corps did not examine the cumulative impacts within the region as suggested by the EPA, but rather promoted some environmental benefits of mining activities.

When a government agency that has regulatory or review oversight over an industry comes to be dominated by that industry, rather than pursuing the overall public interest, that agency is said to be "captured". For example, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) was thoroughly captured by the oil industry that it was supposed to regulate, and thus did not perform proper due diligence to prevent the catastrophic 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The obvious question is - how was the Army Corps captured by the phosphate industry? According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the environmental report was developed by CH2M Hill and funded by Mosaic and CF Industries — the same mining companies seeking permits from the Army Corps. The Army Corps may have put their name on the final document, but the financial trail points to a tainted document.

That means that it is up to outside reviewers to determine whether the suggested environmental mitigation is up to snuff. I believe that a look at the financial incentives and the business model of the phosphate industry is required in order to perform effective environmental analysis. And for that, I start with a look back at history. Phosphate companies want us to trust them and claim that they have the technology needed for proper mitigation and that they have learned from their mistakes. So, what were their mistakes?

In 2001, I read with dismay about the Piney Point phosphate operations in Manatee County. Due to financial problems, they could not pay their electric bill to keep pumps running, let regulators take over the plant, and then declared bankruptcy. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had paid over $200 million in clean-up costs for the treatment of acidic wastewater at this plant. The environmental costs were also high. The DEP dumped millions of gallons of waste into Bishop Harbor in late 2001. And after a subsequent failed clean-up attempt, the DEP started dumping in the Gulf of Mexico in 2003. At one point, the Florida Wildlife Federation suggested that the DEP get federal Superfund designation.

Then there's CF Industries (CFI). Between December 2004 and January 2005, inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the DEP discovered that CFI was treating, storing and disposing of hazardous wastes in the stack and associated ponds at its Plant City facility without a permit and failing to meet land disposal restrictions required by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In addition, they had not provided sufficient financial assurance for closure, long-term care, and liability for this facility. Their civil penalties for violating RCRA were $701,500 and they were required to put up $163.5 million in financial assurances toward the proper closure and long term care of the facility. Additionally, they were required to spend $12 million to reduce and properly manage hazardous waste at their facility.

And how about Mosaic. Prior to Hurricane Frances in 2004, both DEP and Hillsborough County directed Mosaic (then Cargill) to address problems with wastewater storage capacty and the stability of the stack at their Riverview fertilizer plant. Warning letters were issued after heavy rains lowered the wastewater storage capacity. Then came the winds and rains of Hurricane Frances, resulting in a breach, resulting in a 65 million gallon wastewater spill into Tampa Bay, resulting in a massive local fish kill. A settlement with the EPA and the DEP resulted in a $270,000 penalty for water quality violations. Subsequent investments of $30 million were required to reduce on-site wastewater. And more was required to improve the wastewater treatment itself.

Based on these case histories, the business model seems to be to take the minimum measures required by law to protect the environment. When possible, wait until enforcement commences to take these measures. Extract the phosphate and bring in profits, before reclamation begins. If possible, avoid reclamation activities by selling the operation, declaring bankruptcy, or some other legal avenue. I do not know whether these are representative of all the companies involved. Regardless, they are totally rational from a financial perspective. The less the environmental oversight and regulation, the greater the financial bonanza. And what a financial bonanza it must be. Here is some general data from Mosaic.

Mosaic Net Profit

  • 2011: $2.51 billion
  • 2010: $ .83 billion
  • 2009: $2.35 billion

Who Owns The Environmental Risk?

To minimize the environmental impact and avoid potential ecological disasters associated with phosphate mining, the phosphate companies must own the environmental risk. If a company can go bankrupt and avoid reclamation efforts, they do not own the risk. If a company can hire subsidiaries to do their dirty work (such as BP did at the time of the Gulf oil spill in 2010), then the parent company does not own the environmental risk. When it costs millions to prevent a wastewater breach, but a wastewater breach only results in a $270,000 penalty, the company does not own the environmental risk. If all of the stakeholders of Mosaic lived within five miles of one of their mines, especially those who profit handsomely, they might own the environmental risk. But this is not the case. Mosaic's CEO brought home $7.7 million in pay in 2011 and he lives in Minnesota, no where near these Florida facilities. Requiring financial assurance is a big step in the right direction. But consider agency capture. If the Army Corps of Engineers signs off saying that the environmental impact is not so bad, then they will not require much in the way of assurance. In order for a company to own the environmental risk, the incentives must be very large and very real.

Consider the difference in a company's financial calculations, if a permit to mine a new area were based on the environmental reclamation of the area currently being mined. If there were insufficient reclamation, no new mining would be permitted. Or, what if all profit had to be reinvested in a mining facility, until the facility had been returned to an appropriate environmental state. Only after reclamation would a company be allowed to realize a net profit. I don't know the best, most-enforceable approach. But, I don't see much hope in the environmental impact review process, unless mining companies own the final results. And in the current environment, they do not.

From the Sarasota Herald Tribune, "The study managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concludes that the environmental damage from strip mining more than 55,000 additional acres, including 12,000 acres of wetlands and 86 miles of streams, will be insignificant." Let's go with that. If a year from the onset of mining (or perhaps a month), the damage is insignificant, let the phosphate companies keep on mining and keep their profits. If not, they should be required to fix the damage, until it really is insignificant. Only then would they be allowed to continue mining and profit from their enterprise. Here's the bottom line. If a company wants to mine for phosphate, they must own the environmental review and its consequences or lose their permit to mine. Reassess frequently. In such a context, it would behoove a company to eschew the fantasy of insignificant phosphate mining damage in favor of a realistic impact assessment and mitigation plan.

What is missing from this report is a mechanism for tying the proposed impacts to the actual impacts in order to hold the mining companies accountable. Please include such a mechanism.

Some Background:

July 8, 2012

Transit to Green Space (to Save Our Seabirds), Sarasota

The Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club hosted an outing today, but we didn't climb around mangroves, paddle down a spring-fed river, or hike underneath lush tree canopy. Instead, we hopped on a bus and traveled from downtown Sarasota to the Save Our Seabirds Sanctuary. Public buses pose a less polluting way of reaching natural areas than driving alone. And this holds true in Sarasota.

Before touring Save Our Seabirds, we heard more about public transit initiatives at the local level. Britten Cleveland opened the discussion with the disturbing news that opponents of mass transit have really started to dictate the debate with an organized campaign, both nationally and locally. As counterpoint, Timothy Martin, from St. Petersburg, shared great news of grassroots organizing by Awake Pinellas to get folks to attend meetings in support of light rail, rapid bus transit, better bus options, and more bike lanes. They mobilized 100 people to ride the bus over to one such meeting. Ann Mesnikoff joined us from Washington D.C. to share her perspectives on the it-could-have-been-worse Transportation Bill that recently passed Congress. She also let us know about the Washington D.C. bike-share and car-share programs. Johannes Werner from the Sarasota-Manatee Transit Group spoke about small changes that could dramatically improve the bus-riding experience, such as increasing frequency and decreasing transfer times along key routes. For some, this was their first time on a Sarasota bus. SCAT (Sarasota County Area Transit) received a thumbs up for this ride.

Without so much as a prompt from me, Ann Mesnikoff pointed out that money-in-politics was a contributing factor to the disappointment of the 2012 Transportation Bill. Will turning out large crowds supportive of mass transit at local meetings help matters? These folks think so!

More Info:
Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club,
Sarasota Manatee Transit Group,
Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT),
Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO),
Sierra Club Beyond Oil Campaign,
Awake Pinellas,
Well-Attended Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) meeting,
Save Our Seabirds

July 2, 2012

Bicycling on Minimum Wage

Last October, I found out just how much the CEOs of large corporations make. The ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 42 to 1 in 1980, with the average CEO making $1.6 million. Quite a disparity! According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2010, the ratio had skyrocketed to 325 to 1, with the average CEO making $10.8 million. I thought "Let's fix that!" But as it turns out, as economic inequality increases, the wealthy use their wealth to corrupt our politicians and government institutions. In other words, it is less and less likely that everyday citizens will be able to bring down CEO pay legislatively.

At the macro level, Richard Wilkinson presents a wonderful TED talk that shows how economic inequality harms societies. At the micro level, in the U.S., full-time minimum-wage workers cannot support a family. The value of the minimum wage has fallen sharply over the past forty years. In 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.60 per hour. Using the government's CPI inflation calculator, this translates to $10.57 in 2012 dollars. Yet the current federal minimum wage is only $7.25 per hour. I can spend a lot of time canoodling statistics about purchasing power, productivity and the like, but the bottom line is that the minimum wage is just too low!

Back in March, a friend of mine from high school days, Brad, suggested that implementing a living wage might be a practical way to address economic inquality. He gave me the heads up about Ben & Jerry's. They make ice cream and they are in the vanguard regarding economic justice. From their website

Every year, we recalculate the livable wage to make sure it’s keeping up with the actual cost of living in Vermont. In recent years, Ben & Jerry’s livable wage has been nearly twice the national minimum wage, landing at $15.97 in 2012.
Impressive. Ralph Nader was on board with Brad, suggesting much the same thing. In February, Nader said there would be no better time to enact a higher minimum wage than during an election year. On June 6, following up on Ralph Nader's idea, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) introduced the Catching Up To 1968 Act of 2012. It calls for a raise in the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour, and then indexing it to the Consumer Price Index in subsequent years.

Where do Occupy participants stand on this? At a recent Tampa Bay Regional Gathering, I noticed a woman walking around with her bicycle helmet on. She was hovering near her bicycle. As an avid cyclist myself, I stopped and asked if she rode her bicycle all the time or just on that day. As it turned out, she rides everywhere, but not for the same reasons I do. I ride to reduce environmental strains on the planet and to stay in better shape. But Kimberly Cooper's original motivation was that her minimum-wage earnings were not keeping up with her cost of living. She took notice of this back in 1980, and has been riding ever since.

After hearing her out, I researched her facts. John Schmitt and Janelle Jones agree with her; wage inequality began to rise sharply in the United States in 1979. It's not just Kimberly, but the education level of minimum wage workers has risen dramatically since 1979. Kimberly spearheads the Moxxie Bike Club, a bike club for moxie women in St. Petersburg.

The voters of Florida have already spoken out on this issue. In 2004, they voted overwhelmingly (71%) to raise the state minimum wage above the federal minimum and to automatically index it to inflation. This, despite the fact that the opposition outspent supporters 2-to-1. The most recent economic research confirms the benefits of raising the minimum wage. Although it may not reach 99 percent, an increase in the minimum wage enjoys strong support across all demographic groups.

July 4 Update: Congressman Bill Young (R-Pinellas County,FL) tells constituent to "Get a Job" in response to question about House Bill to raise federal minimum wage.

July 24 Update: Pinellas County constituents fire back at Congressman Bill Young to Raise The Minimum Wage.