Leviathan's lair

Giants once roamed the ocean that flowed over Aurora. Giants now mine what was left when the sea receded.
By Edward Martin

The whale was calving, while around her the ocean churned with seals, fish and other forms of life. New Bern and Morehead City, had they been here, would have been under 200 feet of water. Swells swept westward, finally breaking on beaches near today’s Raleigh. A dorsal fin, as tall as the sail of a small catamaran, sliced the surface.

The megalodon resembled a great white shark but at 60 feet was more than twice the length of the largest ever recorded. Lunging, it ripped out a thousand pounds of the birthing cow’s flesh. So violent was the impact, some of the shark’s teeth, as large as a man’s hand, tore loose. Along with bits of blubber and bone, they fluttered to the seabed. Birds feasted on scraps, their droppings joining the casserole of organic material that had settled on the bottom. As the Miocene and Pliocene ages — 5 million to 25 million years ago — receded, so did this shallow sea, leaving behind a layer of phosphate rock 30 feet deep.

It’s still the realm of giants. Collectors find megalodon teeth among the fossils at PCS Phosphate Co. in Aurora, near Pamlico Sound. A subsidiary of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, PCS owns 70,000 acres here, mining about 7,700 acres and processing the ore in 22 plants, making this the world’s largest vertically integrated phosphate mine and chemical-processing facility. At Beaufort County’s largest employer, 1,050 workers follow a daily routine: Ore from the mine goes in, and out comes phosphoric acid and other compounds to make fertilizer, fire retardants, soft drinks, jams and jellies, animal feed and other products. Mammoth bucket-wheel excavators strip away a 40-foot-deep layer of peat and topsoil — overburden, geologists call it — at the rate of 2,000 cubic yards an hour. That’s equivalent to 200 dump-truck loads. Behind them, cranelike draglines scoop ore with buckets as big as two-car garages.

The economic impact is huge, too. “Employees come from at least six counties,” says Tom Thompson, director of the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission. PCS is the largest user of the port of Morehead City. “They have a huge impact on trucking companies, people selling industrial supplies and all sorts of things.” It paid about $122 million for local supplies in 2006, and a study by East Carolina University put its total economic im-pact, including its $64 million payroll, at nearly $800 million in 2005. Its average salary was $62,000, some 70% above the state average. Its publicly traded Canadian parent had sales of $3.8 billion in 2006 from worldwide mining and other operations. PCS’ sister mine in White Springs, Fla., covers more than 100,000 acres. The Aurora mine’s economic impact includes tourism. PCS allows fossil hunting and operates the Aurora Fossil Museum. Aurora is a small town — population, about 600 — but the mine and museum draw some 20,000 visitors a year. “People come from all over the world,” Thompson says.

Even the whale, her slayer and the other giant beasts that surged though the ancient sea pale before the behemoth that is this operation. Ore is pumped from the mine floor as slurry, refined into phosphate rock, which is mixed with sulfuric acid to produce phosphoric acid, then processed into chemicals and finished products. To get them to its customers, the company has its own fleet of covered barges, which ship more than a million tons each year to Morehead City.

This, the state’s only phosphate mine, opened in 1965, and PCS estimates that it will take 70 more years to deplete the Aurora deposit. The company has asked the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to expand its active mining site by 3,400 acres, a move some environmental groups contend could harm wetlands. Proceedings have dragged on for years, with PCS officials, citing increased worldwide demand for phosphate products, growing impatient. But compared with the 25 million years it took to lay down the deposits, the delay doesn’t seem all that long.

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