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Phosphate Mining: Regulations, Reclamation and Revegetation


Phosphate rock production in the United States has been increasing over several recent decades to the point of exceeding 50 million metric tons in 1978 (Mew 1980:19). The U.S. remains the world’s largest producer of phosphate rock, but this production is strongly dependent upon economic conditions and total world production. Phosphate mining occurs in several regions of the U.S. including the states of Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming (Fig. l), and California. Of the total U.S. production of phosphate rock, Florida and North Carolina account for approximately 85%, Tennessee 5%, and western states comprise 10% (Mew 1980). Western states’ phosphate production comes primarily from Idaho and very little is produced in the other states mentioned. South Carolina also has large reserves of phosphate, but recovery has not yet been considered economically feasible (Haynes 1982).

It is recognized that phosphate mining results in the extraction of chemicals and other materials useful to man and his survival. Also, the primary incentive for mining is the profit motive of our free enterprise system, with reclamation and environmental concerns frequently considered necessary, but secondary. Reclamation and environmental concerns are a primary focus of this book and they are considered to be an integral part of both the financial and moral obligations associated with mining.

The size of mining operations and extent of disturbance due to phosphate mining in each of these distinct regions are important considerations in depicting the current state-of-the-art in reclamation. Florida dominates phosphate mining in the U.S. and over 165,000 acres (66,800 ha) have been or soon will be disturbed by mining (Fig. 2). In Tennessee, Maury County leads all other Tennessee counties in land area disturbed by surface mining, mined for phosphate. Approximately 4,700 acres (1,902 ha) of land have been disturbed by 4 companies mining phosphate in Idaho and western Wyoming. In North Carolina, where all phosphate mining has thus far been done by 1 company (Texasgulf), about 3400 acres (1,377 ha) have been altered. Phosphate reserves in the Pungo River formation of North Carolina exceed 350,000 acres (141,645 ha). Mining for phosphate in California has been restricted to a few hundred acres disturbed several years ago (H. Record 1983 Pers. comm.), but not yet reclaimed.

Reclamation has been required since the early to mid-1970’s in most of these states on land mined for phosphate. Controversial at times, land reclamation has involved a variety of technologies and regulations which reflect the complexity of economical, ecological and political forces involved in the decision-making process. In most cases, reclamation procedures and results have been dictated by economic constraints and, sometimes, by environmental concerns.