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  • Writer's pictureBrice Claypoole

Florida’s Future: Toxic Bays and Drinking Radioactive Sewage Water?

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

A machine mines minerals for Mosaic. (Photo by Brice Claypoole)

We are driving outside of a small town called Wauchula, in what feels to me like true wild Florida, just taking in the sights of the wildlands and orange groves after a trip to a nature preserve. Still delighted by the wild turkey we just saw, the landscape opens into a dramatically different scene. The Citrus trees vanish. The land becomes scarred, as if torn up by a giant. None of the ancient oaks that watch over the pastures are present here. Suddenly, over a hill looms a huge digging machine. The machine that has done all this. A machine meant for mining the Earth of its minerals. A machine belonging to the fertilizer company Mosaic.

More and more giant digging machines come into view, looming over the desolate, treeless landscape, a very different scene from the lush garden flowers with oversized blooms appearing on bags of fertilizer at most garden centers. As we leave the scarred land of the fertilizer mines, the eerie outlines of the mining machines continue to loom tall behind us.

The devastation to the areas that could be natural habitats and agricultural land are just the start of the damage Mosaic and the rest of the fertilizer industry does.

Once the minerals have been mined, they are sent to a plant to be made into fertilizer. One of the by-products of this process is phosphogypsum. This radioactive material contains both radium and uranium and cannot be used, so it is stored in gypsum stacks. These giant pools have impermeable lining so that water can’t escape.

Unfortunately, when you have giant pools full of hazardous materials all around (according to the Environmental Protection Agency Florida has the highest concentration of gypsum stacks in the country), with extreme pressure from large loads, something is bound to go wrong at some point. That’s what happened this week in Manatee County, Florida. On March 25 HRK Holdings noticed a leak in its Piney Point facility.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection then permitted the draining of the gypsum stack into Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay is a large and beautiful estuary, speckled with small islands on which birds nest each spring. Herons, egrets, and spoonbills squabble over nesting material and sites. Ospreys dive from mangrove trees, snatching fish out of the water and leaving ripples in the path of the setting sun. Swaying unseen beneath the waves, gripping onto the blades of seagrass you may find a large seahorse or pipefish. Young snapper and snook grow up protected by the tangled roots of the mangroves. Mullet swim by, pursued by fishing dolphins. But the wastewater being drained could harm all of this.

“[The water] is green and cloudy,” says Rusty Chinnis, Board Member of Suncoast WaterKeeper, and a local fly-fishing guide and writer for the Anna Maria Island Sun. Chinnis has watched the water being discharged, over the past week. Up to 400 million gallons of pollution may be released, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. This could have detrimental impacts to both animals and humans.

One wall of the stack is already leaking. It is now possible that the whole stack will collapse. “They waited until it got really critical,” Chinnis said. This could result in a flood of hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive water, rushing over the surrounding lands. Families in the area have been ordered to evacuate and the environmental impacts could be catastrophic.

“The wastewater is about as acidic as black coffee and contains elevated levels of phosphate and nitrogen, which can feed the algae that causes red tide.”

Mendoza, Jesse. "Water flowing from Piney Point: Leak prompts DEP to approve release of nutrient-rich wastewater into Tampa Bay." Herald-Tribune, March 31, 2021, p.1A.

Red tide is one of the most detrimental algae in our state. Let me provide some statistics.

1. There are many human health impacts. According to Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START), “When contaminated shellfish is consumed, it can cause Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP).” It can also cause coughing, sneezing, or tearing, so that in large outbreaks it’s hard to be near or on the water for long.

2. It kills manatees (an endangered species), dolphins, and sea turtles, all beloved species and all deeply in trouble already. START states that, “a red tide in 1996 was responsible for the death of nearly 10 % of Florida’s manatee population and 162 dolphins”.

3. START’s website also explains that red tide, “causes millions of dollars in lost revenue to Florida communities, hotels, restaurants and water based tourism attractions like fishing and boating”.

There are concerns that millions of gallons of water from this gypsum stack, plus heavy runoff of chemical fertilizers from lawns, and Longboat Key’s 11 million gallon sewage spill could cause a severe red tide.

The acidic part is also very concerning. Due to human activities, our oceans are steadily becoming more acidic. This is killing coral reefs and destroying the entire ecosystems they support. This can also harm sand dollars, starfish, and the animals that live in “seashells”. These animals build their shells out of alkaline materials so when the water becomes acidic it’s difficult for them to build their shells. If the water becomes extremely acidic, as it could if 400 million gallons of acid water were drained into the bay, their shells could even begin to dissolve.

If you thought the Tampa Bay disaster was as bad as it got, think again. Didn’t you read the title of this article? The next disaster resulting directly from the fertilizer industry: Manatee County commissioners just voted to recommend injecting the Florida Aquifer – our drinking water source – with the radioactive waste from the piney point gypsum stack. This likely would not be a one-time emergency event. It would open the door for this to be done on a wider scale around the state, according to Glenn Compton, chairman of environmental advocacy group Manasota-88. There are between 20 and 30 stacks in Florida. So, write to your politicians and tell them this is absolutely not okay if you’re concerned about water quality. We cannot risk our water source. If something went wrong, then what would we do?

So, there’s nothing we can do about the Tampa Bay disaster, but you as an individual do have the power to help stop this from happening again. And it will happen again if we don’t do anything. Piney Point has been closed since 2002 , but Mosaic continues to produce radioactive phosphogypsum across the state of Florida.

Mosaic claims fertilizers are necessary for agriculture. Maybe so, but much of the fertilizer is sold to individuals for use on lawns, from which it runs off and pollutes the environment. If you don’t want to contribute to overflowing gypsum stacks, don’t use fertilizers on your yard. Almost all plants grow fine without them.

Also, speak out against companies, like Mosaic, polluting and spread the word about terrible things like the Tampa Bay discharge and the effects that they have on everybody, from kids like me and my sister swimming in the bay to the fishermen and women out trying to make a living on their fishing boats.

Write to elected officials, advises Chinnis, attend commission meetings, bring issues to the table before they become critical. Don’t let “money and special interest win the argument, because when that happens, this is what happens.”

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