Florida Phosphate Plants Threaten Drinking Water, Biodiversity

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April 7, 2021

by karine

A wastewater leak at a former fertilizer plant south of Tampa has local and national officials scrambling to contain it and environmentalists once again sounding the alarm about phosphogypsum stacks (or “gyp stacks”), most of which are located in Florida.

The shuttered Piney Point phosphogypsum plant, located across 77 acres in Manatee County and owned by HRK Holdings, holds 300 million gallons of wastewater. More than 300 surrounding homes and businesses have been evacuated as the state’s Department of Environmental Protection — with help from the Florida National Guard, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and even the Army Corps of Engineers — fights to control the breach and stave off catastrophe.

At a press conference Sunday, Manatee County Acting Administrator Scott Hopes said a 20-foot-high wall of water could form if there is a full breach at the reservoir. To try and avoid that worst-case scenario, state officials are now pumping tens of millions of gallons of wastewater per day into Tampa Bay, which could have serious repercussions for Floridians and Florida wildlife.

Concerningly, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Piney Point is just one of 25 such plants in the state, which collectively may contain as much as 1 billion tons of radioactive waste.

“These mountains, some as high as 200 feet, of radioactive waste are unacceptable”, says Melissa Sims, an environmental attorney with the international law firm of Milberg Bryson Coleman Phillips Grossman.

The Problem With Phosphogypsum

Phosphate fertilizers are made from raw phosphate. Unfortunately, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes, “Phosphate production generates huge amounts of phosphogypsum wastes, nearly 48 million MTs [metric tons] in 1988 alone. Industry estimates that 5.2 tons of phosphogypsum is produced for every ton of phosphoric acid.”

Major Components of a Gypsum Stack

What’s the problem with phosphogypsum? For one thing, it contains Radium-226, a radioactive material with a 1,600-year half-life. As if that’s not bad enough, phosphogypsum can also be composed of toxic elements like arsenic, lead, mercury, and sulfur, among others. Given gyp stacks’ proximity to the Floridan aquifer, which supplies the drinking water for about half of the state’s 21.5 million residents, the threat of contamination only intensifies.

Additionally, the diversion of wastewater into Tampa Bay could give rise to more algae blooms, which can deplete oxygen, block sunlight that marine organisms need to survive, and spawn toxins that kill off wildlife. Besides hurting biodiversity, these effects can be detrimental for the fishing and oyster farming industries.

Justin Bloom, founder of Suncoast Waterkeeper, issued a statement through the CBD, warning that the Piney Point breach appears to be “the ‘horror’ chapter of a long, terrible story of phosphate mining in Florida and beyond.” Bloom added, “We hope the contamination is not as bad as we fear, but are preparing for significant damage to Tampa Bay and the communities that rely on this precious resource.”

A Timeline of Gyp Stack Issues

One of the frustrations for environmentalists (and anyone else concerned about public safety) is that the potential Piney Point breach comes as no surprise. It is not the first, and likely won’t be the last, such incident in the country or even the state:

This string of disasters, culminating (for now) in the Piney Point breach, has environmental and consumer advocates wondering what it will take for state and federal agencies to step in and do something to keep radioactive waste out of Floridians’ drinking water.

“As the effects of climate change–hurricanes and heavy rains worsen–these phosphate processing sites jeopardize the health and safety of neighboring communities”, Sims said

If you live near a phosphate plant and have suffered injuries from toxic wastewater or flooding, contact Milberg to see if you are entitled to compensation.