Protecting Our Environment

Leaks of this waste have the potential to create devastating environmental disasters which harm the health of the environment and Florida citizens.

A Florida Issue

In 2021 a significant leak in a phosphogypsum stack threatened to flood roads and burst a system that stores polluted waters, and dumped millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

Limiting Phosphogypsum Stacks

We Can:

  • Reduce the environmental harm of dangerous toxic waste

  • Protect the Drinking Water of Floridians

  • Enforce our State Laws

A massively consequential issue in Florida that must be addressed is the abundance of waste created from phosphate mining and the problems of the current system we use to store it. Leaks of this waste have the potential to create devastating environmental disasters which harm the health of the environment and Florida citizens. Taking action to reform the system we use to contain phosphogypsum waste, limit the number of phosphogypsum stacks in Florida, and reduce the impact of these environmental disasters are essential steps to tackling this issue.

What is phosphogypsum?

During the mining process for phosphorus (a chemical used in animal feed supplements, fertilizers, food preservatives, and other industrial products), phosphate rock is dissolved in acid to remove the phosphorus.

 

The waste left behind is called phosphogypsum. Phosphogypsum is an extremely dangerous waste product, as it produces radon, a radioactive gas.[1] Phosphogypsum and process wastewater produced by phosphate mining also contain carcinogens and toxic heavy metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium, and zinc.[2] The EPA has determined that phosphogypsum poses a serious cancer risk.[3]

 

What is a phosphogypsum stack?

Florida’s current method of containing this phosphogypsum waste is with phosphogypsum stacks. A phosphogypsum stack is a large pool or pit filled with this waste. These stacks can cover hundreds of acres and are hundreds of feet high. [4]

 

However, this system of storage is deeply flawed. A great deal of phosphogypsum waste is contained in outdated facilities plagued by aging infrastructure and insufficient oversight.[5] There have been several leaks from these stacks in Florida. In 2011, a leak in a phosphogypsum stack led to 169.18 million gallons of wastewater being dumped into Tampa Bay.[6] In 2016 a massive sinkhole opened in a Florida phosphogypsum stack, releasing 215 million gallons of wastewater and waste material into the Floridan aquifer.[7] In 2021 a significant leak in a phosphogypsum stack threatened to flood roads and burst a system that stores polluted waters, and dumped millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.[8] These are just a few of the many disastrous leaks that have occurred. These leaks can have devastating consequences. The increase in acidity from the waste can kill fish, destroy natural seagrass beds which then destabilize local ecosystems, cause harmful red algae blooms for months following the leak, and contaminate drinking water.[9]

 

After the 2021 spill, the Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, Jaclyn Lopez, called it “entirely foreseeable and preventable” and the president of People for Protecting Peace River, Brooks Armstrong, called it “a failure of federal, state, and local governments to protect us from the unacceptable harms of the phosphate fertilizer industry.”[10]

 

These stacks also tend to be concentrated near communities of color. For example, stacks in Riverview Florida were built just 1,000 feet from Progress Village, a historically black neighborhood.[11] And predictably, it leaked waste into the community.[12]

 

[1]https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/news/local/2021/04/07/phosphogypsum-stacks-piney-point-florida-list-map-phosphate-mining-wastewater-phosphorus/7120844002/

[2]https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/phosphogypsum

[3]https://www.epa.gov/radiation/subpart-r-national-emission-standards-radon-emissions-phosphogypsum-stacks

[4] https://www.epa.gov/radtown/radioactive-material-fertilizer-production

[5]https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/546983-floridas-latest-regulatory-nightmare-exposes-a-glaring-national/

[6]https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/news/local/2021/04/07/phosphogypsum-stacks-piney-point-florida-list-map-phosphate-mining-wastewater-phosphorus/7120844002/

[7]https://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/water/mosaic-plant-sinkhole-dumps-215-million-gallons-of-reprocessed-water-into/2293845/

[8]https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/news/local/2021/04/07/phosphogypsum-stacks-piney-point-florida-list-map-phosphate-mining-wastewater-phosphorus/7120844002/

[9] https://flhealthinnovation.org/progress-village-a-forgotten-community-the-need-for-environmental-justice/

[10]https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/imminent-failure-of-phosphogypsum-stack-in-tampa-bay-exposes-phosphate-industry-risks-2021-04-03/

[11]https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/154477217.pdf

[12] https://www.tampabay.com/archive/2004/09/06/acidic-radioactive-water-spills-into-bay/

Education

So, What Can We Do?!

The Agriculture Commissioner has the power to investigate “matters affecting the interests of consumers” and can “recommend programs to encourage business and industry to maintain high standards of honesty, fair business practices, and public responsibility in the production, promotion, and sale of consumer goods and services” (Florida Statute 570.544).[1] This means the agriculture commissioner could investigate safe storage failures by phosphate mining companies and recommend solutions to the problems.

 

The Agriculture Commissioner could recommend new regulations to the appropriate agencies that require that facilities be updated, use better methods of storage, and have more safeguards. Additionally, the Agricultural Commissioner must ensure that all current laws concerning environmental protection, pollution control, and worker safety are being upheld by the phosphate mining industry and legally pursue those companies when they are breaking the law.

 

In the event of a leak or other failure in the phosphogypsum storage system, the Agriculture Commissioner could also declare a state of agricultural emergency and send a state agricultural response team to assist in the situation and gain the power of “oversight of the emergency management functions of preparedness, recovery, mitigation, and response with all agencies and organizations that are involved with the state’s response” (Florida Statute 252.3569)[2].  In the event of a leak, the Agriculture Commissioner can also grant loans to agricultural producers whose business has suffered and work with them on environmental protection and clean-up (Florida Statute 570.82).[3]

 

The opposition might suggest that this increase in awareness, aid and oversight might be costly, but the Florida government risks far more money by allowing this broken system to continue because time and time again the government has had to deal with the expensive fallout of environmental disasters which hurt our state’s crops, ecosystems, and economy.

 

[1]http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0500-0599/0570/Sections/0570.544.html

[2]http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0200-0299/0252/Sections/0252.3569.html

[3]http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0500-0599/0570/Sections/0570.82.html

Enforcing State Laws

the Agricultural Commissioner must ensure that all current laws concerning environmental protection, pollution control, and worker safety are being upheld by the phosphate mining industry