The following article by Tom Palmer of the Lakeland Ledger is from 2011, but reprinted here because the issues remain the same five years later, these being the damage to the earth done by phosphate mining.
Phosphate Industry Is Challenged on Pollution
By Tom Palmer
Published: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 9:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 10:55 p.m.
The effects of mining phosphate and manufacturing fertilizer have been controversial for decades, but until relatively recently no one was willing to take on the industry.
The most obvious change has been the preliminary success of a lawsuit by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to limit the expansion of mining further into the Peace River Basin in Hardee County in the absence of a fuller review of the environmental impacts.
That follows earlier challenges that met with mixed results by county and city officials in coastal areas over various mining proposals, some of which were supposedly in conflict with local governments’ water supply plans to further tap the Peace River to support coastal development interests.
Although the industry does a better job of conserving water than it once did and some of the marginal companies that were the source of the worst environmental problems have gone out of business, some of the issues won’t go away because of the nature of what the industry does.
Mining involves ripping out everything on the earth’s surface over thousands of acres, digging deep holes in the ground to get to the phosphate rock and shipping it back to the fertilizer plants via pipelines.
Manufacturing phosphate creates air pollution. Large waste stacks containing toxic chemicals are left behind.
The industry was so powerful that the mining companies were not required to repair some of the damage mining caused to the land for nearly a century after phosphate mining began in Florida.
Even after reclamation was required, there has been disagreement over how well the restoration was done and, frankly, whether any restoration project is as good as leaving things alone in the first place.
The biggest issue has been what the cumulative impact of the digging, pumping and polluting has been.
Environmentalists pressed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to update the environmental impact statement on the impacts of phosphate mining in Central Florida.
At the last public meeting the phosphate companies packed the hall in what I suppose was an attempt to make a statement. Mining company officials, consultants and vendors have been actively submitting comments to the Corps in connection with the study, according to a recent update Corps officials sent.
It’s too early to say what the results of that study will be and, more specifically, whether it will result in any changes in the way the earth is altered and repaired in this part of Florida.
In addition to habitat loss and the effects on water supply, another issue is water quality, an issue that is broader than our immediate region.
Water pollution, a process called cultural eutrophication, is the result of decades of pollution by phosphorous and nitrogen runoff.
Locally, some of the phosphorous pollution is naturally occurring and there isn’t anything anyone can do to fix it.
But the rest is the result of runoff from yards and farms where the products the phosphate industry makes and sells — fertilizer — are used (some claim overused) for everything from food crops to lawns.
One of the side effects of the flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries this year was the massive plume of fertilizer-polluted water that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, increasing what is known as a “dead zone.”
According to one estimate, 80 percent of the phosphorus put on land for plant nutrition is lost to runoff before it ever gets to the plants, which seems a waste of resources and a description of a poorly managed system.
Although the idea is still pending in Polk County, one of these days commissioners may have to grapple with the issue of how to impose fertilizer restrictions to reduce pollution runoff to comply with federal pollution permits.
The fertilizer industry and its allies in the lawn care industry — the folks who sell this stuff in case the connection isn’t clear — have opposed these restrictions, arguing there’s no scientific basis for requiring anyone to cut back on applying chemicals containing known water pollutants.
They’ve been able to persuade legislators to limit local regulations, so the industry still has some power in Tallahassee.
But when taxpayers are faced with cleanup bill for pollution the politicians allowed to continue for political reasons, that may change.
The influence of the phosphate industry lives on in other ways.
The wording on the soon-to-be-celebrated historic plaque commemorating former Kissengen Spring is vague on the issue of whose heavy water use was responsible for lowering the aquifer and leading to the spring’s demise in 1950.