PCS Phosphate gets mining permit|Long process nears the end

Published 12:04 am Thursday, June 4, 2009

Staff Writer

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has granted PCS Phosphate a permit to expand its mine in Aurora.
“We believe that this is a very good day for PCS and a very good day for Beaufort County and our surrounding communities,” said Ross Smith, the mine-and-plant complex’s manager of environmental affairs.
The permit was issued Wednesday afternoon by the Corps of Engineers’ office in Wilmington. Officials around the state began reacting to the news Wednesday, but copies of the decision likely won’t be available for review until today.
The Southern Environmental Law Center had yet to review the decision, but was wary of the permit. Center lawyer Derb Carter said he hoped to be surprised by the decision when he does review it.
“Our expectations are very low that the company will do anything meaningful to address the wetlands destruction and damage to the Pamlico River that will result from this permit,” he said.
PCS official Smith described the permit as falling well short of the company’s original hopes. But he said the company would accept the decision “so that we can continue operations in Aurora.”
“Obviously, the permit won’t be for what we wanted, because throughout the 8 1/2-year process, there have been a lot of areas that the company has compromised on and avoided,” Smith said. “So, the company is going to be leaving a lot of phosphate in the ground.”
Smith hadn’t yet seen the text of the document Wednesday evening.
However, based on conversations with officials from the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, he expects the only major change in the latest round of revisions will be excluding some areas near head waters of South Creek from the area the company is allowed to mine.
The company will likely sign easements permanently protecting those areas, he said.
The latest round of talks, which spawned this permit, involved the Corps of Engineers and regulatory agencies including the EPA and PCS Phosphate.
The talks were the result of an extra review by the Corps of Engineers’ Washington, D.C., office the EPA had required. The regulatory agency argued at the time that the Corps of Engineers wasn’t requiring the company to avoid enough wetlands. It also claimed it hadn’t seen concrete enough plans for some replacement wetlands the company will be required to create.
The company is now hopeful the permit will placate the EPA, which has 10 days to begin appealing the decision. An appeal could further delay mining operations on the new tract. County Manager Paul Spruill said the county government hopes the EPA won’t try to veto the decision.
“We view any delay on the part of any federal agency as an unfair regulatory effort on the part of the federal government,” he said.
If there is no appeal, the company could have all other state permits it needs and begin mining the new areas by the end of summer, Smith said.
In a press release, Col. Jefferson Ryscavage, commander of the Wilmington district, praised the decision, saying, “This has been a very carefully weighed decision, because it exemplifies the toughest role our Regulatory program has to be prepared to address — weighing the Nation’s need for a limited resource that is important for food production and industry beside the Nation’s equally important commitment to sustaining an important ecosystem.”
Both Spruill and Congressman G.K. Butterfield praised the decision for ending a long regulatory process.