‘No community should suffer this’: Florida’s toxic breach was decades in the making

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Panorama of a city business district with office buildings and skyscrapers and superimposed data, charts and diagrams related to stock market, currency exchange and global finance. Blue line graphs with numbers and exchange rates, candlestick charts and financial figures fill the image with a glowing light. Sunset light.

It’s been a week since a significant leak at a long-abandoned fertilizer plant in the Tampa Bay area threatened the surrounding groundwater, soil, and local water supplies.

Last weekend, officials ordered more than 300 families living near the 676-acre Piney Point plant site in Manatee county to evacuate. The sheriff even emptied out his jail’s first floor of inmates in case a “20-foot wall of water” came rolling their way.

By Monday, local officials said they thought the crisis had been averted; they lifted evacuation orders on Tuesday afternoon. But what they meant was that imminent catastrophe had been postponed. The long-term, slow-moving crisis of toxicity, decades in the making, remains – and is echoed at dozens of radioactive ponds across the state.

“We’re nowhere near out of the woods yet on this – there’s a long way to go,” says Glen Compton of ManaSota-88, an environmental non-profit that has been urging officials for decades to do something about the industrial waste pile.

Piney Point has a long history of polluting the water and air around it, dating to when the plant was built in 1966, Compton says. Just two years later, in 1968, Compton founded ManaSota-88 to oppose the site’s phosphate mining. (“The 88 stood for 1988 because we were supposed to solve all the problems within 20 years,” Compton says. “So now, the 88 stands for 2088.”)

Effluent spews from a pipe into a ditch at Port Manatee, where a breach in a nearby wastewater reservoir on the site of a defunct phosphate plant forced an evacuation order.

Within a year of Piney Point being built, its original owners – a subsidiary of Borden, the glue and milk company – were caught dumping waste into nearby Bishop Harbor, a marine estuary that flows into Tampa Bay. The plant repeatedly changed hands throughout the years, all the while continuing causing numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents.

In 1989, for instance, a 23,000-gallon leak of sulfuric acid from a holding tank forced the evacuation of hundreds of people.

After the owner went bankrupt, the Piney Point fertilizer plant was shut down in 2001. But the waste from more than three decades of phosphate mining still sits in massive piles at the site – the environmental equivalent of a ticking time bomb. An intense storm could easily send overflow, for instance.

Before phosphate can be used to help crops grow in fertilizer, it goes through a polluting chemical process. Phosphate ore mined from the soil is treated to create phosphoric acid – a main component of fertilizer. Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste left over. For every ton of desirable phosphoric acid produced for fertilizer, more than five tons of phosphogypsum waste remains.

The fertilizer industry that produced that waste then dumps it in large piles known as “gyp stacks” – mountains hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of acres wide. And at the top of these mountains are huge lagoons, containing hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater that is highly acidic and radioactive with heavy metal contaminants. A breach at another stack in the state after a 2004 hurricane led to millions of gallons of polluted water being spilled into Tampa Bay.

This toxic industry has plagued the state for decades. Central Florida is the phosphate capital of the world; the state produces 80% of the phosphate mined in the US, as well 25% of the phosphate used around the world. An estimated 1bn tons of phosphogypsum is housed in about two dozen stacks that dot the Florida landscape, some looming as high as 200ft, each with its own pond of acidic wastewater on top. And every year, about 30m more tons are added to them.

“Florida can’t keep ignoring the catastrophic risks of phosphate mining and its toxic waste products,” says Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “No community should have to suffer the consequence of this toxic legacy for some corporation’s short-term financial gain.”

According to Compton, what happens at Piney Point sets a precedent in Florida regarding industrial waste from phosphate mining. “Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong here,” he says.

A view of a wastewater holding pond in Piney Point, Florida, in October.

About 223m gallons remained in the leaking pond at Piney Point on Friday, according to the Florida department of environmental regulation; so far, about 215m gallons of wastewater have been pumped into Tampa Bay. Still, environmental advocates fear how the plant’s toxic stew might affect water quality: on Wednesday, the state agency said there were elevated levels of phosphorous detected where wastewater was being discharged.

Two additional stacks with wastewater containment ponds remain at Piney Point, and officials fear an unaddressed breach could lead to a sudden rush of water out of the other two stacks, which are more toxic and acidic. If that were to happen, Compton says, “we’d expect to see major impacts to Bishop Harbor, which is one of the prettiest places in the state of Florida”.

Should either of those stacks fail, he adds, the harbor “would be totally annihilated. It is really not too strong a term to use.” The nutrient-laden water could fuel algae blooms, endangering already vulnerable marine life.

At the end of Wednesday, with pumps still gushing out millions of gallons of wastewater, state senators passed an amendment that would allocate $3m – what appears to be the first tranche of funds in a $200m plan to close and clean up the site – to dispose of the wastewater.

Compton says the plan entails building a well injection in order to get rid of the wastewater – an idea facing opposition from surrounding residents, national organizations, and anybody who has an interest in agriculture in the area. “When you put wastewater into the ground, you really have no idea where it goes next. There’s no 100% foolproof way to monitor which way the aquifer flows and where it ultimately ends up.”

The Piney Point site is shaping up to be a costly environmental catastrophe, and Compton thinks the fertilizer industry should be accountable for disposing of its waste, rather than passing the cost on to taxpayers. But even with talks of the fertilizer plant’s cleanup and closure on the horizon, he’s not optimistic the threat of pollution from its wastewater will soon disappear.

“There’s a local saying that if you go to a Manatee county commission meeting 50 years from now, there’s two things that’ll be on the agenda: sewage spills and Piney Point,” Compton adds. “This isn’t going away anytime soon.”

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