PCS Phosphate awaits decision

Published 9:27 am Friday, July 11, 2008

By Staff
Comment period on permit request comes to and end
Staff Writer
After years of wrangling and with some work-force reductions already made, the battle over whether PCS Phosphate should be given a permit to expand its mine near Aurora is more or less down to a month or two of waiting for a decision.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped accepting comment on its final environmental impact statement regarding the permit request. It should issue a decision by mid-September, said Tom Walker, project manager for the Corps of Engineers.
The application from PCS Phosphate, the local subsidiary of a Canadian minerals company, has drawn attention because of its scope — encompassing roughly 4,000 acres — and because it proposes expanding the mine into environmentally sensitive areas east of the company’s existing facility, which includes a mine and plants to process and ship the phosphate it produces.
If granted, the expansion would be the largest wetlands impact on a single application in North Carolina history, although the impact would be spread over 37 years, Walker said.
Environmental groups have used tougher language in their descriptions, with the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation calling it the “largest wetland destruction in N.C. history.”
The Corps of Engineers’ staff will examine the comments it has received about the plan, and then meet once more with company officials. Some comments are still being sent to Walker from Wilmington, but he expects there to be about 25, mostly from government agencies that routinely comment on Corps of Engineers’ permits or groups and people that have commented throughout the process, like the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Comment periods at earlier milestones in the decision-making process have drawn hundreds of comments, including some from elected officials including N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Washington Mayor Judy Meier Jennette. All of the government officials have supported the application, many noting the company’s economic impact and praising its efforts to protect the environment.
After the Corps of Engineers’ meeting with company officials, the final decision will be the only step remaining in the process, which was started early in 2001.
In June, company officials said that fewer contractors are being employed by the mine as it waits to see if the expansion will be allowed. Eventually, the wait could push the mine to a staged shutdown, company officials have said.
Walker expects it will take 30 to 60 days for a decision to be made.
The Corps of Engineers could decide to grant the permit, deny the application or take no action, a decision that would spare the company the difficulties of reapplying if denial looked imminent, Walker said. The Corps of Engineers and the company have said a nondecision would be undesirable, but the option remains on the table, Walker said.
But one company official is more optimistic.
If a permit is granted, company officials believe it will have all the ancillary permits it needs from other agencies by December, Smith said.
The group has already started applying for some of those permits, and it is talking with other agencies it will need to deal with, such as the N.C. Mining Commission and the state Division of Land Resources, Ross said.
Heather Jacobs, PTRF’s riverkeeper, filed a comment in the latest round on behalf of PTRF. She said the group had raised concerns it had already brought to the Corps of Engineers, and she also said PTRF members have been unhappy with previous comment periods.
An area of concern is the analysis of the economic effect different mine footprints would have on the company, she said. PCS Phosphate employs more than 1,000 full-time workers, along with several hundred contractors.
Another key concern, she said, is the company’s plans to mitigate for the wetlands it would damage with the expansion. Jacobs is worried a lenient decision for PCS Phosphate could be used as a reason to demand less from other similar applicants.