photos by your historian
The Ledger writes about the end of Mosaic’s project to fill the terrible sinkhole on their mine property which opened up in August of 2016, nearly two years ago. This is not the worst damage caused by the phosphate mines in Central Florida, but it is egregious nevertheless. Even more egregious is the underhanded manner in which both Mosaic and our Department of Environmental Protection reacted to this catastrophe.
AND NO APOLOGY
Mr. Bouffard says both apologized, but we disagree; the DEP did not issue any apology that we ever saw. They simply explained their actions as following the letter of the law, as if that exonorated them.
It did not.
Mosaic and DEP both knew contaminated, radioactive water that would be hazardous to humans was going into the aquifer, and they knew that nearby residential wells had the potential for contamination. Aware of this, both kept quiet for about 19 days, and acknowledged it only when caught. The assumption remains that, left to their own conscience, they would never have made it public.
We can understand Mosaic’s action even though we condemn it as being dishonest, underhanded, selfish, sneaky, etc. etc., because they are a money-making company and money is their first concern, not the well-being of their neighbors. In spite of what they say.
THE LOSS OF PUBLIC TRUST
But we cannot, in any manner, even begin to understand why our state agency, ironically with the word “protection” in its name, should put this industry’s public image before the health of the citizens. There can be no excuse for this, and it shows once more why we can have no trust, honor or respect for the decision-makers in this agency.
Because of Mosaic’s underhanded, covert comportment, we cannot trust them to tell the truth when they say the contamination has not migrated off their property. We cannot trust them to honestly monitor neighboring wells. To this day we do not know where that contaminated water is located nor where it will end up. N either does Mosaic nor DEP.
Harsh words, but deservedly so.
And no apology.
Our aquifer does not belong to Mosaic nor DEP. The benefit we get from Mosaic is of immensely and incomparably less value than a clean aquifer, upon which we depend for our life-giving water.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
MULBERRY — The Mosaic Co. on Wednesday announced it had completed an $84 million repair of a sinkhole below a gypsum stack at its New Wales phosphate fertilizer manufacturing plant nearly two years after it led to the release of about 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the Floridan Aquifer.
The sinkhole became a minor environmental problem for the company but a major public relations disaster.
The sinkhole opened up on Sept. 5, 2016, at the plant southwest of Mulberry, but the company did not make a public announcement of the accident until 10 days later after inquiries from the media.
The announcement led to a public backlash from hundreds of residents near the New Wales plant concerned about contamination of their drinking water from residential wells. Public officials from Gov. Rick Scott to the Polk County Commission joined the chorus of criticism about the company’s silence.
But Mosaic officials continue to assure the public the aquifer contamination has been contained within a few hundred yards of the sinkhole, as indicated by more than 80 monitoring wells set up at New Wales.
The company immediately set up recovery wells to pump water out of the aquifer near the sinkhole and will continue to do so for the next several years as long as testing shows even traces of contamination in the water, said David Jellerson, senior director of gypsum engineering and environmental projects at Mosaic, who led the repair effort.
“We continue to see no impact,” said spokeswoman Callie Neslund in a Wednesday phone interview with Jellerson, referring to tests of residential wells within a 4-mile radius of the sinkhole. “We’ve been sharing those results with the residents, and they’ve been posted on our website.”
Mosaic set up a special website dedicated to news about the sinkhole and cleanup at www.mosaicco.com/florida/new_wales_water_loss_incident.htm.
Gypsum is a byproduct of phosphate fertilizer manufacturing. Because of environmental risks, including contaminants and slightly higher radioactivity, it must be kept in controlled storage on mounds that reach more than 100 feet above ground, typically near the fertilizer plant.
The top of the stacks collects water that contains high concentrations of sodium and sulfate pollutants leeched from gypsum.
On Aug. 27, 2016, a Mosaic technician monitoring the stack noticed a substantial drop of about 2 feet in the pond level, the company reported. Nine days later, a sinkhole opened up that completely drained the pond.
The company immediately reported the accident to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. But neither the company nor the department made a public announcement because officials believed the contamination could be contained on the site and posed no threat to public drinking water.
They came to regret that decision after word of the accident leaked out to Central Florida media, including The Ledger, which began reporting on the accident Sept. 15, 2016. Mosaic and DEP officials made public apologies for their handling of the accident.
Scott visited New Wales on Sept. 27 to view the sinkhole and talk to Mosaic officials.
At a subsequent press conference, Scott announced the DEP would issue an emergency rule requiring public and private organizations to publicly disclose environmental accidents within 24 hours of occurrence. Scott said the sinkhole accident and a previously unreported sewage spill from the city of St. Petersburg into the Gulf of Mexico prompted the notification order, which the Legislature enacted into law last year.
The repair involved drilling into the bottom of the sinkhole, approximately 220 feet from the top of the gypsum stack, which was covered by hardened blocks of gypsum, Jellerson said. The plan called for filling in the cracks between blocks with a cement-like substance, called “grout,” making the bottom of the sinkhole impermeable to further water infiltration.
Mosaic officials initially anticipated completing the repair by last summer, but they ran into technical difficulties with injecting the grout, he said.
A major problem was the pipes used to carry the grout were coming out bent, Jellerson said. That sent engineers back to the drawing board, and they found a solution by drilling at a steeper angle.
The repair was also delayed by last summer’s frequent and heavy rains, which made the job too hazardous for workers, Neslund said.
The project resumed last fall and was completed by May 12, Jellerson said. The crew consisted of 18 full-time workers plus others as needed.
“More than 350,000 man hours went into this job,” said Jellerson, who called it a team effort. “I’m certainly glad we’re done. We worked hard.”
After sealing off the bottom, the crew filled in the sinkhole with gypsum from the stack, he said.
Mosaic moved more than 780,000 cubic yards of material, drilled more than six dozen holes and placed approximately 20,000 cubic yards of grout, according to a company statement released Wednesday.
Mosaic will continue to pump out groundwater from a primary recovery well and two backups probably for at least another couple years, Jellerson said. The pumping will continue until the water shows no traces of sodium and sulfate contaminants.
The company will also continue testing residential wells within a 4-mile radius of the sinkhole through the end of this year, Neslund said. It will continue with semi-annual testing of three publicly owned wells through 2019.
DEP is also testing water from those wells, she added.
To date there’s been no sign of sulfate or sodium contamination from a monitor well 1 mile away, Jellerson said.
Still, two New Wales area residents said they remained concerned about contamination spreading to their residential wells.
“I haven’t been back in my pool since it happened,” said Kim Borg, a Lithia resident. “I still have concerns. We have had no information from Mosaic in this area.”
Borg said her family drinks or cooks only with bottled water or tap water through a filter. She also purchased a home water cooler after the accident.
Borg and another Lithia resident, George Elder, said their homes lie beyond the 4-mile radius Mosaic set up for free residential testing. Borg said Mosaic did one test on her well shortly after the accident, but Elder reported the company never tested his despite repeated requests.
“They haven’t done anything for me, but I didn’t expect it,” said Elder, 91, who worked for some 40 years in the local phosphate industry, including on the crew that built the New Wales plant. “Anytime that much stuff goes into the ground, there’s a possibility it will end up here.”
Borg and Elder also worried that the accident will depress their property values.
“I’m concerned, but we live here, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Elder said of his property value. “We’re not going to move.”
Both said they would like to have Mosaic test their wells.
Kevin Bouffard can be reached at [email protected] or at 863-401-6980.