PCS Phosphate’s clock is ticking, but only time will tell if the countdown by one of Eastern North Carolina’s largest employers is cause for alarm. Ross Smith, environmental manager of PCS Phosphate, says the company needs federal permission — soon — to mine about 4,000 acres of wetlands near Aurora. “We don’t have that much reserve remaining in the currently permitted boundaries. So if this thing were prolonged for another matter of years, we’d have no choice but to shut down.”
Already, the permitting process has taken seven years. If the feds give it a green light, PCS, part of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, would spend $4.8 billion to mine the wetlands over the permit’s 37-year span, Smith says. In strict economic terms, that’s clearly preferable to closing the world’s biggest integrated phosphate mine and processing complex, throwing 1,000 people out of work and shrinking a $60 million annual payroll to zero.
But potential economic gains and losses must be weighed against the damage mining could cause the environmentally sensitive wetlands, which soak up runoff and pollution near the Pamlico River and several large coastal creeks. Heather Jacobs, a spokeswoman for the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation, says the expansion would be the biggest destruction of wetlands in state history.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it’s trying to expedite the process, though it has given no indication when a decision might be forthcoming. Few expect the corps to deny the permit, though it could mandate changes in PCS’ plans. Public comment on the proposal ends this month. The company’s interest in the wetlands has been stoked by growing demand for phosphate as an ingredient in fertilizer and food. It’s widely used in soft drinks.
Corps officials say a shutdown is unlikely, but even a delay of several months could force PCS to shift massive equipment around within the 7,700 acres it’s allowed to mine, Smith says. “The lack of permits has already caused PCS to spend some pretty significant dollars and time in developing contingency plans.”