Photo by Jim Tatum
The following appeared in the Alachua-High Springs-Newberry Observer, vol. 17, no. 3, May 2019
Dealing with garbage from the phosphate industry
The phosphate industry loves to tell us we need them to survive, which is untrue, and implies we must excuse the mess they make because we need their product. Phosphate mines are famous for leaving monstrous messes behind which threaten our health, drinking water, and which take our tax dollars.
Mosaic, one of the world’s biggest companies, has been noted for breaking the rules and trying to hide their mistakes, resulting in the EPA records listing Mosaic as a “significant noncomplier” with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA,) and in a 1.8 billion dollar fine in 2015.
At this moment in time, we have three giant gypstacks (large mounds of phosphogypsum or calcium sulfate hydrate, a by-product from processing fertilizer) causing concern and threatening trouble: one in Mississippi, one in Louisiana and one in Florida. Two of these belong to Mosaic. Due to radioactivity of the product, there is no safe disposal of these huge mounds, which have toxic lakes on their tops.
Near Pascagoula MS we have the old Mississippi Phosphate Corporation which operated there from the 1950’s until declaring bankruptcy in 2014, leaving more than 700,000,000 gallons of acidic, nutrient-rich wastewater stored at the facility.
On the 300-acre landfill, every time it rains one inch, it creates nine million gallons of toxic water which much be disposed of. This costs taxpayers about one million a month. Read about this shameful story and their acid spills at this reference.[i]
More imminent is the threat of toxic water spilling at Mosaic’s St. James Parish site in Louisiana. In January 2019, there were 700 million gallons of toxic process water sitting atop a gypstack near the Mississippi River. The stack is showing signs of collapse, resulting in the State of Louisiana considering the site to be in an “emergency condition.[ii]” Should that occur, the spill could impact nearby waterways, local residents, and, of course, aquatic plants and animals.
In 2006 the EPA found that Mosaic was violating the RCRA at its two plants in Louisiana and in six plants in Florida. This resulted in placing Mosaic under a federal consent decree in 2015, which is still in effect.
The government alleged that Mosaic failed to properly treat, store and dispose of that waste. “EPA inspections revealed that Mosaic was mixing certain types of highly-corrosive substances from its fertilizer operations, which qualify as hazardous waste, with the phosphogypsum and wastewater from mineral processing, which is a violation of federal and state hazardous waste laws,” the agency said in its statement. This from the 10-1-2015 EPA consent decree[iii].
Meanwhile, local residents within the “emergency condition” area live in constant fear.
In Florida, the infamous Piney Point is back in the news. Manatee County commissioners who, ironically, not long ago welcomed Mosaic to mine for phosphate in their county, recently had their staff go on record as saying in reference to the gypstack “it’s only a matter of time before another environmental disaster occurs.[iv]”
Piney Point[v] has been one of the biggest environmental headaches in the Florida phosphate industry. Begun by Borden Chemical in 1966, in 1989 it spilled 23,000 gallons of sulfuric acid, and in 1997, 54 million gallons of toxic water went into the Alafia River, killing aquatic life for 40 miles downstream. Abandoned in 2001 by then-owner Mulberry, DEP allowed 10,000,000 gallons of process water to be dumped into Bishop Harbor to prevent dike collapses. In 2004, millions of gallons of toxic process water spilled off the top into Tampa Bay, killing crabs and fish.
About five years ago Manatee County commissioners seriously considered putting the problem out of sight by injecting the toxic water deep into the earth, but wiser heads prevailed and this dangerous and foolhardy action did not take place.
Recently, however, some commissioners have considered accepting money from the coal industry in North Carolina for receiving coal tar ash to cap the gypstack top. This would fix North Carolina’s toxic problem of disposing of ash but make the gypstack even more dangerous due to all the toxins in the coal ash.
So we await the summer rains and hope for the best.
Meanwhile, the FDEP has before it paperwork to approve new mining in Bradford County, Florida, and Mosaic is working hard to open mines in DeSoto County, Florida. When, and how, do we tell them “enough”?
Jim Tatum is historian for Our Santa Fe River and lives in Fort White.