By Andy Mele, Sarasota environmental activist and Democrat
Piney Point in Manatee County, just south of Tampa, is a small mountain of waste phosphogypsum called a “gypstack,” with earthwork berm-retained lakes on top for settling out the waste phosphogypsum, and recycling the acidic process fluids used in fertilizer manufacturing. The current spill is just the latest in a string of disasters and near-disasters associated with Florida’s phosphate fertilizer industry. The barely-controlled discharge of more than 200 million gallons has, by some estimates, inserted 150 metric tons of nitrogen, the region’s most powerful nutrient pollutant, into the Tampa Bay ecosystem.
The cell (lake) that was pumped into Tampa Bay was the “good” cell—it had been nearly empty until FDEP acquired the Piney Point property in 2001, and subsequent operations by HRK Holdings, which was allowed to purchase the property for use as a landfill in 2006, had refilled the cell with material somewhat more benign than typical process fluids found in the cells atop other gypstacks, where fertilizer plants are still humming away. Time will tell how bad this spill may have been, as the nutrients are assimilated into the Tampa Bay ecosystem and fuel explosive blooms of potentially harmful algae.
The other two cells atop Piney Point are still filled with lethal process fluids. Remarkably, after 15 years of rainfall and motley attempts by FDEP to accelerate evaporation, the fluids remain as hazardous as they were the day they were pumped up there, even though the fertilizer plant has been dismantled and scrapped for over a decade.
There are 23 other gypstacks in Florida, most of them larger, and some much larger, than Piney Point. They are scattered throughout the “Bone Valley,” so named because of thick deposits of fossilized, phosphate-rich marine life. Hillsborough, Polk and Hardee counties have been and are being extensively mined (>50% of the counties’ land area), and Manatee has been moderately mined (<10%). Several of the other stacks have experienced catastrophes, none more so than the two stacks at New Wales, which have breached and developed two sinkholes since 1994. The latest, in 2016, also made international news, but since the spill went straight underground into the Floridan Aquifer—a major drinking water source—the news died down soon after the sinkhole was filled and closed. Out of sight, out of mind.
Today Mosaic is back to pumping process fluids onto the south stack at New Wales, and asking FDEP for a permit to expand the footprint of that stack by more than 100 acres. FDEP’s own John Coates has said, “That stack should never have been permitted there.”
Democratic Environmental Caucus Positions and Action Items:
- We oppose deep-well injection of hazardous waste from phosphogypsum stack-top cells without advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) to remove heavy metals, correct the pH, remove radionuclides and nutrient pollution. Drinking water standards apply to Aquifer Storage and Recovery systems (ASR), and should apply to any form of well disposal.
- We urge the FDEP to require the phosphate industry, bankrupt or not, to begin AWT on stack fluids immediately. We do not accept procrastination and postponement as viable preventive measures. Piney Point is a clear example of the consequences of “kicking the can down the road.”
- The flanks of gypstacks are comprised of fine radioactive dust, which is capable of traveling long distances and becoming lodged in the lungs of people and animals. All gypstacks must be covered and sealed in stages. First, immediate coverage with liner material, and eventually with 6’ of reinforced concrete.
- We oppose radioactive roads. The phosphate industry’s recent lobbying fell on receptive ears in the previous administration, and we believe that any movement to use radioactive phosphogypsum for road beds or any other application must be halted.
- Any further production of phosphogypsum must be halted immediately, at least until long-term solutions are found that will be permanently protective of our health and our environment.
- We appeal to the Biden Administration and to the U.S. Congress to repeal the Bevill Amendment, which established so-called “special wastes” under subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Enacted at the behest of fossil fuel and mining interests, Bevill waves a magic wand over materials like phosphogypsum, which is by any definition hazardous, and in some cases overtly toxic, and declares them harmless.
- We oppose permitting and activation of the Desoto mine, and Desoto West, also known as the Keyes Tract. We must be present when Mosaic returns to Desoto County with its full mining plans and rezone requests, to lend support to the Board of County Commissioners in making the difficult decisions to deny all rezoning and permits, knowing that Mosaic will return again and again, and will relentlessly sue this tiny, impoverished county. We must also be present in the Commission chambers of Manatee County when the Keyes Tract applications are submitted and decided. Manatee will be a much heavier lift because it has already permitted mines, and is subject to the anti-home-rule Bert Harris Act.
- FDEP is far too soft on the phosphate industry, and many of the disasters that have occurred—and will continue to occur—can be laid at FDEP’s feet. By the terms of NEPA and the Clean Water Act, states may enact environmental quality standards that are more stringent than federal standards. We must lean hard on FDEP to adopt water quality standards that are more stringent than they are today.
- FDEP allows the phosphate industry to dilute the toxic constituents of its waste stream until they meet the state’s lenient water quality standards—requiring tens of millions of gallons per day, all of which is free– and then permits release into surface waters, many of which, such as the Alafia and Peace Rivers, are also drinking water sources. This practice must be stopped.
- We urge the state to require the phosphate industry to use AWT reclaimed water for its industrial purposes, and to leave the aquifer waters in the ground for the natural water balance.
- We believe that the phosphate industry and FDEP are sufficiently compromised that the water quality monitoring done in and around phosphate sites, whether extraordinary or routine, be performed by independent third-parties, whether academic or NGO, funded by federal dollars and individual donations.
- For more information, and to sign an important petition urging EPA to regulate phosphogypsum at the federal level, please visit https://phosphogypsumfreeamerica.org
Image Credits: AP photo/Tiffany Tompkins