Despite Mosaic’s claims, the fact remains that phosphate mining destroys wildlife. The following statement by the Army Corps of Engineers in this article is a totally untrue. (and grammatically confusing)
The 1997 discharge into South Prong Creek- Alafia River, and the 2004 gypstack discharge into Hillsborough Bay are well documented. Millions of aquatic animals were killed.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
The company gave the Sun a tour of some mining operations in Hardee County this month. Mining is now moving to reserves there, and in Manatee County and DeSoto County — which could start in a few years if all permitting and zoning is approved.
Mosaic contends mining for phosphate is “distinct” from what happens next — manufacturing fertilizer.
“As mining moves south, we will continue to utilize our current manufacturing facilities and we have adequate space for storage within our existing manufacturing footprints,” said Mosaic Spokeswoman Jackie B! arron.
Manufacturing footprints can involve piles of waste called “gypstacks” that span hundreds of acres. Mosaic now owns a dozen in Florida — of which three are still active, and under which two sinkholes have opened including one in 1994 and another last year.
Even though no new gypstacks are planned, not everyone thinks the industry should be allowed to mine more.
“We’re putting science to work for generations to come,” Mosaic advertising states.
Permitting for mining takes years and usually spans eight different agencies involving local state and federal government.
And according to one of those permitti! ng agencies, science is also central to its determinations.
“We continue to try to base all of our decisions on the best available science,” said Philip Kloer, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after prevailing this month in a lawsuit filed by environmentalists seeking to stop Mosaic’s mining expansion.
There is disagreement, though, about whether the science on mining is comprehensive enough to keep permitting it.
“We should be looking at mining impacts — processing and radioactive waste disposal as a whole,” said Glenn Compton, spokesperson for the ManaSota-88 environmental group, which was a plaintiff on a lawsuit filed in March against government agencies that sought to stop Mosaic’s new mining permits from moving forward. “They’re getting permitting fo! r mining without having to address disposal.”
Based on some science from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which was one of the agencies sued by environmental groups over Mosaic’s permits — risks reviewed weren’t enough to deny more mining.
“Groundwater quality issues associated with phosphate mining have not been identified,” states an impact study summary from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 2013.
“Downstream monitoring of aquatic communities has not documented clear cause and effect relationships between mine discharges and biological responses indicating indirect water quality effects have not been substantive,” the corps’ study states.
Groundwater monitoring is not an exact science, according to Compton, who said it’s impossible ! to assure no pollution will take place as a ! result of mining.
Although problems may not be as apparent today, Compton said after a decade or two a different story may be told.
“Charlotte County is downstream from the mining operations,” said Compton. “Drinking water supplies are something all residents in Charlotte County should be concerned about.”
And there is concern — especially for people living closest to mining activity, according to environmental groups.
“The people most impacted by phosphate mining, those who have the misfortune of living near the mines and those who care deeply about the plants and animals destroyed by the mines, are profoundly worried for their futures,” said Jaclyn Lopez, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which was lead plaintiff on the lawsu! it. “It is extremely disappointing that the court didn’t agree their voices mattered.”
Water releases from mine sites must meet state and federal regulatory standards, according to Mosaic.
Land that has been mined will need centuries to become anything like what it once was, according to another plaintiff on the lawsuit, Suncoast Waterkeeper.
Mining in DeSoto County west of Arcadia is proposed to happen over about 16 years — from 2021 to 2037 — with reclamation work lasting up to an additional six years.
“Streams directly impacted by mining will be reclaimed in a manner that results in channel morphology consistent with natural topographic conditions,” according to the reclamation plan from Mosaic for its proposed DeSoto site. “For some streams, this will result in improveme! nts of existing channel configurations that have been modified by agri! cultural operations.”
And the company’s plan says that after reclamation is done, the site will include additional wetlands and streams.
But as far as what happens on that reclaimed land, Suncoast Waterkeeper Andre Mele said the soil is virtually sterile.
“Very few things grow there,” Mele said.
A study prepared by the Central Florida Regional Planning Council for the Hardee County Board of Commissioners over a decade ago in 2002, pointed to some problems.
“The results of this study indicate that future land use patterns, in particular the ability to support various types of commercial agriculture and urban development, may be substantially altered as a result of large-scale phosphate mining in Hardee County,” the study states.
But according to Mosaic, reclamation has gotten better over the years, and agricultural uses on once mined lands — such as growing sod, for example — have been effective.
“As a result of stronger regulatory requirements and voluntary improvements in our practices, today’s phosphate industry is reclaiming land to higher standards than ever before, and we take pride in getting better at it every day,” information from Mosaic states.
Wildlife such as alligators and birds were seen in parts of active mine sites during the Sun’s recent tour from Mosaic.
According to the company, different species of animals — including thousands of gopher tortoises — were successfully relocated to oth! er suitable habitats.
! Also, for example, Mosaic has said its preservation efforts have helped the Florida Scrub Jay population not only survive, but grow. The company planted over 800,000 trees in 2016.
A study from the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute [FIPR] from 2008 found hundreds of species of vertebrates were living on reclaimed land in Florida.
According to Mosaic, out of the 198,500 acres that have been mined or disturbed since 1975 — it has satisfied over half of its reclamation obligations so far by releasing 101,400 acres.
And, according to the company it owns or controls over 21,000 ares in Florida that are granted as conservation easements, which “ensures longterm protection of these sensitive lands and waters.”
Gypstacks and jobs
“As long as the industry operates in Florida, gutting our land and stockpiling radioactive waste, we’ll vigilantly monitor the government’s review of those activities,” Lopez said, after a United States District Court judge ruled Dec. 14 in favor of the government’s permitting of Mosaic’s future mining.
But according to information from FIPR — which is part of Florida Polytechnic University, and funded through severance tax dollars paid by the phosphate industry — the level of radium in gypsum is low.
“Phosphogypsum is a waste only because EPA calls it a waste, and everything on Earth is radioactive to some degree,” said Gary Albarelli, director of information programs at FIPR. “The concentration of radium in Flor! ida phosphogypsum is within the range of its concentration in natural ! soils of the Earth. The concentration is also lower than that of the natural Florida phosphate rock used in its production.”
Gypstacks — large piles of phosphogypsum, which is a byproduct of fertilizer production — have become a prominent feature of Florida’s landscape.
A sinkhole last year — for which Mosaic said the cause remains unknown — remains under repair at an estimated cost to the company of $84 million to plug and fix. A class-action lawsuit filed by some residents concerned about water quality living near the sinkhole, was dismissed without any settlement on Mosaic’s part.
“Tests continue to show no off-site impacts,” said Barron about surrounding well sampling.
There’s debate, though, over whether gypstacks — which have mostly been closed, under closure! or idled — are involved in the formation of sinkholes.
“It’s just a matter of time before we see others,” said Compton about sinkholes. “There’s been little thought put into where they would be located.”
A physical scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Ann Tihansky, told the Sun last year she also didn’t think the latest sinkhole was a surprise.
In 1994, a sinkhole that has been described as “one of the largest of its kind” — by engineers who wrote a 1997 scientific journal article about successfully repairing it — opened under a nearly 200-foottall gypsum stack at the New Wales plant in Mulberry.
In 2016, Mosaic informed regulators it was losing hundreds of millions of gallons of process water in! to the aquifer through another sinkhole under a gypstack at the same pl! ant in Polk County.
Tihansky wrote in a USGS circular about the first sinkhole, which stated increasing weight of the gypsum stack could have facilitated the 1994 sinkhole at the plant.
“Enlargement of cavities by dissolution and erosion combined with the increasing weight of the stack would have facilitated the sinkhole collapse,” the USGS circular on the 1994 sinkhole states.
While the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has rules on gypstack construction to limit environmental impact, Albarelli said, problems do arise.
But, he said, the main problem has to do with acidic process water ponds located atop the stacks.
“Much of central Florida is underlain by karst lime! stone that dissolved slowly with time leading to sinkhole formation,” said Albarelii. “Sinkholes are inevitable and the presence of a gypsum stack is not related to sinkhole formation. However it results in the pond water and gypsum going into the sinkhole.”
According to information from Mele, there is anecdotal evidence of adverse health effects to people living near phosphate mining and manufacturing — though that is not currently backed up by epidemiological studies.
Company officials also denied such claims during the Sun’s tour.
There are also better uses for phosphogypsum than stacking it, according to FIPR, which contends those other options are environmentally safe and economically feasible.