Officials in Florida ordered residents of Manatee County to evacuate a few square miles around an abandoned phosphate plant after a leak was discovered in a massive pond containing toxic wastewater.
The pond, known as a phosphogypsum stack, is owned by HRK Holdings collects wastewater accrued in the production of phosphorous, a key element for fertilizing plants. The waste from this chemical process includes high amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen as well as traces of uranium and radium, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If the stack collapses, it could pollute surrounding groundwater, soil, and local water supplies.
The stack currently gushes 35 million gallons of wastewater per day, according to the local NBC News affiliate in Western Florida. It’s been leaking since March 29, and as of Saturday, there were still 340 gallons left. Attempts to stop the leak have failed thus far, and officials are pumping the slurry out of it with controlled discharges to lessen the impact in case of a total collapse.
Along with Manatee County, Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties on Saturday.
What was the mine producing?
Phosphorous, along with nitrogen and potassium, is an essential element in the growth of plants. Without all three of these elements in the soil, plants either won’t grow or will have significant issues. Chemical phosphorous fertilizers, like the ones produced at this Florida operation, take naturally occurring phosphorous found in rocks and use acid to strip them from their parent material, resulting in radioactive wastewater. In this form, the phosphorous can be consumed more quickly by plants, making it a popular choice for industrial-scale production.
Phosphorous can also be added to soils organically. Manures and composts contain phosphorous (as well as nitrogen and potassium), and unaltered phosphate rock is also available commercially. The nutrients in these organic fertilizers take a bit longer to make their way into the soil though, as they need to be broken down by worms and microorganisms.
With proper crop rotations, soil management, and biodiversity, the farmers that grow food for both human and animal consumption don’t need to rely on any added fertilizers. But the industrial-scale side of the farming industry is built around specializing for single, specific enterprises, like corn or beef, requiring them to lean heavily on outside inputs.
That’s where problems like radioactive wastewater come in.
A growing problem
Locals around the mine in Florida have been experiencing the negative impacts of the operation for decades, the local Bradenton Times laid out in 2019. Sulfuric acid leaked from tanks in the late ’80s, and another phosphogypsum stack leak occurred in 2011.
Concerns of a leak, like we’re currently seeing, or collapse have been on the record for years, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
While the mine is now abandoned, its threat to the local community and local wildlife is clearly not gone. Thus far, more than 300 homes in the area have been ordered to evacuate. If the leak turns into a more catastrophic collapse, that evacuation area could grow immensely.
There are nine active phosphate mines in the state of a total of 27 that are either inactive or have yet to see production, according to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. In addition to the pollution these active operations can pump out, phosphate mining can disturb anywhere from 750 to 1,800 acres of wetland and surface waters every year.
So how do we slow down or stop things like this from happening? If you’re a farmer, the best thing to do is switch to organic fertilizer or alter your methods to produce more naturally efficient soils that don’t need added inputs. And if you’re a property owner or renter who does home gardening or landscaping, make that switch yourself or talk to your landscaper about the products they use.
But many of us aren’t farmers or property owners, and as always in our largely capitalistic society, a great way to make change is by choosing where to spend your money. Support local, organic farmers around you that don’t use chemical fertilizers. The push back to organic farming is a trend that’s been on the upswing for a while now, and supporting that trend could incentivize more producers to consider growing in organic, sustainable ways.
Additionally, voting for people at all levels of the government that understand and are concerned with enterprises that damage our environment and our lives is key. Politicians that prefer to look at things in terms of profit rather than impact are how we end up in situations as we see now in Florida.