September 26, 2021
By Gil Smart
Florida’s phosphate industry seems like a throwback to an earlier, more barbaric time.
Phosphate was discovered in Florida in the 1880s and soon portions of the state were being strip mined, huge gouges carved into the earth to retrieve the precious rock. It’s then processed to remove sand and clay and then treated with sulfuric acid to create phosphoric acid, which is used in synthetic fertilizer and other products.
But here’s the catch: For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, you get five tons of waste, radioactive phosphogypsum. There’s no real use for it, so the industry’s solution has been to pile it in huge “stacks” which tower above the flat Florida landscape. Inside you’ve got tainted “process water” also left over from the industrial process, stored in plastic-lined ponds.
When one of those liners failed at Piney Point in Manatee County earlier this year, the tainted water began leaking out and officials worried the stack could fail. So the state authorized the “controlled release” or more than 200 million gallons of this water into the Tampa Bay. That amounted to an entire year’s worth of nitrogen in just 10 days. Small wonder that few weeks later red tide exploded in the bay, fed by that nutrient laden water from Piney Point.
But here’s the thing to know: Piney Point is actually a small “gypstack,” covering about 80 acres. Some gypstacks cover up to 400 acres.
There two dozen of them across Florida; nine are active and nine have been 100 percent reclaimed, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The rest either haven’t been started, or are shut down – like Piney Point.
By the very nature of what they are, they’re inherently dangerous.
Phosphate industry officials insist their safety record is superb and the stacks are monitored every which way and then some. But, you know, accidents happen.
Just last month the Florida DEP issued a pollution notice about a possible liner tear at a gypstack in Bartow, this one owned by industry giant Mosaic. The process water reportedly went into nearby drains and then back into the holding ponds.
But meanwhile Mosaic is looking to expand another of its gypstacks, at the New Wales plant near Mulberry. This is the same plant where an enormous sinkhole opened up in 2016, dumping some 215 million gallons of process water into the Floridan Aquifer.
Florida Agricultural Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried has come out against expanding the gypstack, and said the DEP not only should reject Mosaic’s application, it must “address Florida’s other phosphogypsum stacks that remain ticking time bombs upon our environment for generations to come.”
So how do you solve an environmental problem more than a century in the making? Florida needs to figure that out or what happened at Piney Point is all but guaranteed to happen again, somewhere else.