On September 20, 2016, the Mosaic Co fertilizer plant in Mulberry, Florida, dropped a bombshell on local residents. Damage to the lining system of a stack of fertilizer byproducts and waste had cause 215 million gallons of contaminated water to leak into the groundwater. The maddening part for residents is that the initial leak was detected weeks earlier on August 28. Confirmation of the sink hole came later on September 6. Even then, the initial public disclosure didn’t come as a press release from Mosaic; the story broke as local media reported on the sinkhole as it spilled polluted water into the Floridan aquifer.
This environmental catastrophe is located just 30 minutes east of Tampa Bay, with the polluted water pouring into the aquifer below. This region is known locally as Bone Valley and contains one of the world’s richest stores of phosphate rock, the primary ingredient in phosphate fertilizer. Phosphate fertilizer is used all over the world to restore vital phosphorus to crop soil. This one area supplies over 75 percent of the phosphate fertilizer to the United States and accounts for 25 percent of the world’s supply.
Because of the process of mining and extracting the phosphate from the rock, five tons of waste is produced for every one ton of product. And, according to the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute, because the waste, phosphogypsum, contains slight radioactivity, it cannot be used for anything. So, because nobody knows what to do with it, they just put it in huge stacks. In Florida, there are 25 of these stacks that hold 1 billion tons of waste, with 30 million new tons made each year.
Today, Mosaic issued a press release that states that Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc. (ECT) has finished its first round of testing wells closest to the spill site and have found no evidence that the ground water is polluted. Because the waters in the Floridan aquifer only move at about 500 feet per month, Mosaic is confident that they will be able to remove the contaminated water before it has an impact on surrounding areas. According to the most recent tests by ECT, no polluted water has migrated off of Mosaic property.
Residents in the area aren’t so sure. With over 700 requests from locals to have their well water tested, it seems that not many are willing to take Mosaic at their word. Louella Phillips, a local who lives about three miles east of the sinkhole, told Tampa radio station WMNF that her water appeared slightly rusty once since the incident. She added that her three children seem to have taken ill after drinking the water from the time of the leak until the public notification.
Other residents have also expressed anger and concern that nobody was informed of the leak until the WFLA special news report. According to Mosaic representatives, this is because the law currently only requires that the public be notified when the polluted waters have moved off-site. When the leak was detected, the company followed existing laws and notified the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Polk County. In response, Governor Rick Scott issued a new emergency ruling that requires the FDEP to notify the public within 24 hours of any pollution incident.
Governor Scott said, “It does not make sense that the public is not immediately notified when pollution incidents occur…I am demanding any business, county or city government responsible for a pollution incident to immediately tell the public. That is common sense and our residents deserve that.”
Mosaic estimates that the cleanup is going to cost at least $50 million dollars to complete and has no timeline set for completion as of yet.
[Featured Image by Chris O’Meara/AP Images]