Sierra Club -- What Hast Thou Wrought and at Whose Cost?

08/13/2010 07:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It has become a necessity to conduct environmental impact studies that accompany any major undertaking, be it in mining, construction, or development. Clearly these impact statements receive keen scrutiny and are frequently subject to impassioned debate. They also provide a powerful venue to challenge a given project, especially in areas that are environmentally sensitive or in proximity to environmentally protected areas.

According to Bloomberg
on July 30th, in response to a suit initiated by the Sierra Club, the U.S. District Court in Jacksonville Florida granted an injunction preventing the Mosaic Company, the second largest fertilizer manufacturer in North America, from expanding its South Ford Meade Florida phosphate rock mine to neighboring Hardee County, upholding the plaintiffs pleadings that the permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Mosaic in June didn't fully account for the potential environmental damage to wetlands from the proposed expansion. Mosaic is appealing the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Let me state here very clearly that I have no expertise to judge nor comment on the merits of the case. But I am aware of what the societal results would be. Mosaic has made it very clear that they would shut down their entire South Fort Meade operation if expansion was prevented; that without the possibility for expansion the entire project becomes economically untenable. They have already given the 221 workers at the South Fort Meade plant sixty-day notices of termination.

Now phosphate rock is the core building block for phosphate fertilizers such as diammonium phosphate, one of the key fertilizers essential to our agriculture. Phosphate rock is also the core input, once transformed into phosphoric acid, in such other phosphate fertilizers as triple-super phosphate, NPK's and on. Closure of Mosaic's South Fort Meade plants would result in an annual loss of circa one million tons of phosphate based fertilizer production.

Thus a highly significant loss of available plant nutrients was announced almost concurrently to Russia declaring it would embargo all exports of wheat because of a grave and lingering drought. In doing so it has raised the specter of world food shortages. Given the reduced level of world grain stocks, the Russian embargo will put enormous pressure not only on our wheat production but also, as one example, on such somewhat interchangeable grains as corn, of which the U.S provides half the world's supply. The American farmer will be hard pressed to produce all he possibly can, a job made significantly harder by the loss of these million tons annually of fertilizer product.

Given the loss of jobs, the disruption to a major supplier of fertilizers ability to meet its customers' requirements, and the emerging national priority to grow as much grain as possible to fill world needs, a question must be asked:

Along with the 'environmental impact' statement, has a 'societal impact' statement been called for? And if not, should there have been? Certainly the families of the 221 laid off workers are stakeholders in this issue, as is the nation's farming community, not even to speak of the company that would have been geared up to mine, ship and transform the raw phosphate into life supporting fertilizer, increasingly needed by our farms throughout the nation.

I make no judgment, but I do wonder at what cost and what overall advantage would be served by closing down this operation. Do the pros and cons balance out, and if not, what can be done to bring greater equanimity to these confrontations.