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With agriculture depressed, phosphate mining scrapes almost to a halt

Tourism, citrus - and phosphate. Florida is nearly synonymous with its No. 1 and No. 2 industries. But jog off the main tourist trade routes, beyond the orange groves and into central Florida's ''Bone Valley'' and the state's third largest industry - phosphate mining - becomes very visible.

Here multistory draglines rise above the scrubland of the Peace River plains, veined with the remains of the ancient sea life that makes up the mineral phosphate. The region is littered with elongated lakes, the remains of 100 years of strip mining which has provided more than 80 percent of the nation's phosphate supply and one-third of the world's.

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Today, however, the draglines that scrape at the soil have slowed nearly to a halt. Phosphate is the foundation of the fertilizer industry, and with the current agricultural slump, the phosphate industry is directly affected. If farmers don't plant, they don't need fertilizer, and so phosphate mining slows accordingly.

The current slow period has shut seven of its 23 mines, plus four chemical plants and 18 fertilizer plants. About 23 percent of the industry's 14,600 employees have been laid off.

''We are directly tied to the farmer and until he gets a fair return on his commodities, we won't be going anywhere,'' explains Robert Bonnell, spokesman of the Florida Phosphate Council. ''The export market has decreased because the high cost of the dollar created an artificial price increase for phosphate on foreign markets, and there are cheaper places for them to buy.''

Although phosphate mining here is largely backed by large chemical corporations diversified enough to absorb losses, there are efforts to make those losses short term. The industry has lobbied heavily for the PIK (payment in kind) program in which farmers are paid in surplus grain to take their land out of production until agricultural surpluses are used. ''This hurts us in the short run,'' says Mr. Bonnell, ''but it will help get the farmer back on his feet.''

Further, he explains, the industry wants the federal government to ''stop making low-interest loans to our competitors.'' Foreign aid to Morocco, for example, goes to subsidize the phosphate industry there, undercutting US phosphate export prices, he says.

Industry studies show that at normal rates of mining and with existing technology there is a 200-year supply of phosphate left here. With advances in mining technology expected to tap even deeper into Florida soil, there is a potential 500-year supply, they say.

Environmental concerns over the past decade have scrutinized phosphate mining and have raised questions about the large amounts of water the industry uses to process the pebbled mineral; about proper disposal of the clay byproduct; and about land and lake reclamation. Industry spokesmen, who feel constrained by environmental permit processes that add time and extra costs to mining projects, suggest that there has been a substantial cleanup. For example, mining operations now recycle 90 percent of the water they use, instead of dipping into the state's aquifer. Strip-mined land reclaimed by the chemical companies now accommodates everything from Little League fields to housing tracts, shopping centers, and even new wetlands that didn't exist before.

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At any rate environmental criticism is expected to be muted somewhat as the slump makes people realize just how important the phosphate industry is to their local economy.

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