Published 6:56 pm Wednesday, December 31, 2008
PCS Phosphateenters ninth yearof permit process
By TED STRONG
The county’s largest employer is entering the ninth year of its fight for a particular permit that would allow it to engage in a massive expansion.
That struggle is the No. 4 story among the Washington Daily News’ Top 10 stories of 2008.
Officials from PCS Phosphate’s mine-and-plant complex in Aurora say the mine will begin to exhaust its reserves soon if it doesn’t expand, meaning lost jobs. Contractors who used to clear land ahead of mining operations have already been cut.
Environmental groups say the expansion, which involves three separate tracts of land east, west and south of the existing mine, poses significant dangers to sensitive ecosystems. Most of the groups don’t fully oppose the expansion, but they want to see it monitored closely and carefully limited.
Among the groups lobbying on the issue are the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The company wants a more wide-open process.
Many elected officials have backed PCS Phosphate’s push. Most of them cite PCS Phosphate’s environmental record and the company’s financial influence on the region.
The struggle seems likely to come to a close in the new year. The biggest and most important permit PCS Phosphate must come from the U.S. Corps of Engineers. But that permit is contingent on several other permits from a variety of agencies. The last of the other permits still under discussion is a 401 certification from the state’s Division of Water Quality.
DWQ officials granted a 401 certification earlier this month, but PCS Phosphate officials said it is too restrictive. At issue is a wetlands hardwood flat on the Bonnerton Tract, west of the existing mine site.
State officials said the flat is one of the best of its type in the world and must be preserved. Their certification allowed PCS Phosphate to construct a path to move equipment through the flat, but not to mine it.
PCS Phosphate officials said the protection, which essentially cuts the site in half, would make it inappropriately expensive to mine.
Company and state officials continue to discuss the issue.
Once an agreement is reached, the Corps of Engineers is expected to issue its permit quickly. The process has involved thousands of public comments on the issue and roughly a dozen different proposed borders for the mine expansion.
After the Corps of Engineers’ permit, other permits must also be granted, but none is expected to be as time consuming or controversial.