PCS Phosphate mitigation attracts controversy

Published 6:39 am Sunday, March 1, 2009

By Staff
Company must create wetlands
Staff Writer
If PCS Phosphate receives a federal permit to expand its mining operations near Aurora, it will dig up wetlands to access the phosphate ore beneath.
The federal permit hinges on, among other things, PCS Phosphate’s proposal to replace the wetlands it disturbs.
The work, called compensatory mitigation, is separate from PCS Phosphate’s efforts to reclaim land it has already mined.
There’s no clear consensus among environmentalists and government officials on how much good would come from the massive mitigation program the company has proposed.
Why mitigation?
Governments use mitigation to ensure wetlands don’t disappear from the landscape. The policy represents a sharp shift from earlier government projects, which for much of the 20th century emphasized draining wetlands.
The shift marked a change in thinking about wetlands. Instead of seeing them as stinking, soggy and useless, government officials came to recognize the functions that wetlands provide.
According to Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper Heather Jacobs Deck, wetlands help reduce flooding, purify water and provide key wildlife habitat.
Jacobs Deck said wetlands near Aurora that PCS Phosphate wants to mine provide a range of services. The wetlands’ most easily shown economic impact, she said, is serving as a nursery for many fish species that are valuable commercially and recreationally.
Riverkeepers are independent scientists hired to protect river ecosystems. Jacobs Deck works through the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation (PTRF), which has criticized some government decisions during the PCS Phosphate permitting process.
But David Lekson, who’s in charge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Washington regulatory office, praised the company’s mitigation efforts. Lekson is one of several Corps of Engineers officials with input on PCS Phosphate’s federal permit.
PCS Phosphate’s last mitigation project — at the Parker Farm tract — has now largely been turned into Goose Creek Game Land near Aurora, which is administered by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Not a first choice
Mitigation projects, though, are a last resort.
Before companies can propose measures, they must prove they cannot reasonably avoid harming wetlands.
Lekson said the Corps of Engineers has worked to shape the company’s permit application to ensure it disturbs as few acres of wetlands as possible.
About a dozen potential boundaries for the mine’s expansion onto three parcels near its current site were discussed before company and government officials settled on the current, and presumably final, version.
The boundaries represented different balances between conservation and phosphate extraction.
Jacobs Deck said that the PTRF and many government agencies want to see the mining company dig up fewer wetlands as it expands.
PCS Phosphate officials have repeatedly contended they’re doing their best. The company put up a stiff fight at the end of 2008, when the state Division of Water Quality wanted to protect a hardwood flat (a type of wetland) as part of a smaller state permit prerequisite to the federal permit. Ultimately, the state agreed to allow PCS to mine through a strip of the wetland and preserve the rest.
But even with all the boundary tweaking, a project as big as the one proposed in Aurora will disturb many acres of wetlands. Environmentalists have called it the largest permitted destruction of wetlands ever in North Carolina.
That’s where compensatory mitigation comes in: To receive mitigation credit, the company is required to create more wetlands than it destroys.
The exact ratio of new wetlands depends on whether the company creates totally new wetlands, restores former wetlands, improves existing wetlands or preserves existing wetlands. PCS Phosphate is mostly restoring former wetlands, which is the most prevalent method, experts said.
Lekson, who has worked with PCS Phosphate officials since 2006 to develop the mitigation plan, said the plan is based on solid science and provides a range of environmental benefits. For example, he said, the plan addresses many types of wetlands found in estuaries.
But critics say people can’t recreate in a few years what took thousands of years to form naturally.
The bottom line, said Jacobs Deck, is that man-made wetlands often don’t have the same value as the natural features they’re meant to replace, even if there are more of them. That’s the case with some wetlands PCS Phosphate wants to dig up, she added.
The soil in natural wetlands, particularly, is tough to replicate, she explained. Natural soils have unique communities of microbes, including bacteria and fungi and high levels of organic matter, and some studies indicate it can take reclaimed land up to 100 years to regenerate that level of complexity, she added.
Jacobs Deck said reclaimed farm fields will eventually provide some environmental benefits, but are “probably always going to be different from what you’re trying to replace.”
Lekson takes a different view. He said that much of the land PCS wants to mine has already been “impacted” – that’s environmental-science language for damaged or degraded by people. Impacted can mean anything from polluted to ditched to destroyed. In fact, he said, the environment could be improved by the project.
Jeff Furness, PCS scientist in charge of mitigation, said the soil in the former wetlands the company is restoring for mitigation credit still has some original characteristics, which makes it easier to hit government targets for soil type.
And officials emphasized that while the company is building new wetlands now, it will take PCS Phosphate 35 years to dig up all the wetlands they intend to mine, meaning that the environmental cost will be spread out and gradual.
PCS has purchased land in parts of eastern Beaufort County and Hyde County to use to create new wetlands. Government guidelines require that new wetlands be created in the same part of the same watershed as wetlands being destroyed.
While PCS Phosphate’s mitigation for its last expansion is all in one place at the Parker Farm Tract, it wasn’t able to fit all of the mitigation for the currently proposed expansion into one tract. Instead, it’s working on a number of properties, though some of them connect. The company tries to follow creeks where possible, for example.
One of the properties the company bought in Hyde County used to belong to Bob Rich, of the Rich Company, a local real estate firm. The property was once part of a farm Rich owned. Before that it held a couple of streams. Now, combining the property with land purchased from several other landowners, PCS Phosphate is hoping to restore those streams, Rich said.
Once the streams are restored, the water table is raised and the trees are in the ground, the projects must be monitored. The Corps of Engineers scrutinizes the projects regularly for five years, longer if the company has to restart because a first try failed.
Lekson said the Corps of Engineers monitors created wetlands to ensure they’re developing like they’re supposed to.
PCS Phosphate pays a consulting firm to monitor the sites, too, Furness said. He added that the company must meet standards for the water table, soil types and plants growing on the tracts and that those features provide an easy way to check if the wetland is providing the services it should be.
The company is also creating more acres of mitigation than it is required to, PCS Phosphate officials said. That way, if some of it doesn’t take, the company won’t have to start over.
And the land must be protected in perpetuity by putting an easement on the property.
Rich, the landowner, seemed happy at the prospect.
Cutline for corrresponding photo: Jeff Furness, the PCS Phosphate scientist in charge of mitigation for the Aurora facility, shows a wetland plant species that already has colonized a newly converted wetland. (WDN Photo/Ted Strong)