EPA delays PCS Phosphate’s permit

Published 1:19 pm Tuesday, April 7, 2009

By Staff
Staff Writer
The EPA on Monday asked for an additional review of PCS Phosphate’s application for a permit to consume wetlands as it expands its facility near Aurora.
PCS Phosphate officials aren’t yet sure if the decision will mean lost jobs or reduced production at the mine, said Ross Smith, the company’s manager for environmental affairs.
PCS Phosphate’s application now goes to the assistant secretary of the Army at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Washington, D.C., office.
The assistant secretary’s office has 30 days to review the application.
That office likely will send the application back to Wilmington with orders to either improve the paperwork or issue the permit, said Tom Walker, who coordinated the application’s review at the Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington office.
This is the first time he’s seen a decision “elevated” in nine years, Walker said.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s request is the latest turn in a permitting process that has lasted more than eight years. The company wants to expand to extract high-grade phosphate ore from areas that include thousands of acres of wetlands.
Walker declined to comment specifically on the EPA’s decision because he hadn’t had an opportunity to review it.
Smith was unhappy with the EPA’s decision.
He said the company will keep reviewing the situation as it changes.
Private environmental groups oppose the expansion, saying it would be the largest permitted destruction of wetlands ever in North Carolina. Environmentalists have maintained the company isn’t being selective enough in where it mines, tearing up wetlands it could afford to avoid.
The EPA echoed those concerns last month when it proposed a different footprint for the mine’s expansion. The EPA’s decision to request further review referenced the footprint change it proposed. In its objection, the EPA specifically cited the footprint proposal as an alternative the Corps of Engineers should have considered.
Congressman G.K. Butterfield on Monday criticized the EPA for making that proposal without consulting PCS Phosphate, which is the county’s largest employer. The EPA did consult other government agencies, Butterfield said.
Butterfield, a Democrat, represents the state’s 1st Congressional District, which includes part of Beaufort County.
In an April 3 letter to an EPA official, Thomas J. Regan Jr., president of PCS Phosphate, wrote that the proposal isn’t economically feasible because it would cut years of mining life from the site and require the relocation of a state road at a cost of $90 million.
The EPA’s letter announcing its decision, signed by Michael H. Shapiro, acting assistant administrator of the EPA, identifies several other concerns the EPA has about the Corps of Engineers’ work reviewing PCS Phosphate’s application.
The EPA contends the Corps of Engineers:
Local officials panned the decision.
Vice Chairman Jerry Langley agreed with McRoy.
He added later, “If you’re going to make a decision, make a decision, don’t procrastinate.”
A call to the EPA’s national headquarters Monday afternoon wasn’t immediately returned.