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Florida Water Emergency: The Piney Point Phosphogypsum Crisis Unfolding Before Our Eyes

Bone Valley is a rich geological region of Florida, where you can find ancient dugong bones, prehistoric horse teeth, and massive megalodon teeth in the meandering Peace River and its tributaries. The fossils extend all the way offshore, and Caspersen Beach in Venice, Florida has become famous for collecting shark teeth on its black sand beach, which is because it is within the Bone Valley Formation.

But those ancient bones are more than just interesting artifacts for specimen seekers—they are also floating within a geological matrix that includes phosphate, an important element in the creation of agricultural fertilizer. Bone Valley is one of the most significant deposits of phosphate on the planet, and mining companies have been targeting it in Florida for over a hundred years—their exploits turned the ports along Tampa Bay into some of the busiest in the country by tonnage, as phosphate carriers have taken the mineral to overseas ports for refining into fertilizer.

As with most any mining operation, there are substantial waste byproducts in phosphate mining that need handling once the phosphate has been extracted. The waste is a slurry that is filled with heavy metals like cadmium and chromium, nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and can be slightly radioactive due naturally occurring uranium, is kept in massive elevated lagoons called phosphogypsum stacks.

Anybody who has driven south from Tampa on the Tamiami Trail has seen these towering formations rising up a hundred feet or more, and probably weren’t aware that they contained a huge lake of nutrient rich, potentially radioactive waste within. There are around two dozen phosphogypsum stacks in the region, mostly located adjacent to Tampa Bay.

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The trouble for our ocean starts when a phosophogypsum stack is breached, which sadly has happened on numerous occasions, and the wastewater dumps into nearby terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. Hurricanes in particular are a significant threat to phosphogypsum stacks—breaches have occurred due to heavy rains, spilling the nutrient rich materials into neighboring ecosystems which include the bay itself, as well as mangrove forests, salt marsh and upland freshwater ecosystems. The slurry impacts wildlife, including fish and crabs, and destroys habitat, including seagrass beds, and is like pouring gasoline on a fire when it comes to fueling harmful algal blooms, including red tide.

The stacks can fail for other reasons, including because of aging, design flaws and maintenance issues.

That brings us to where we are with the tragedy that is currently unfolding at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack in Manatee County, on the south side of Tampa Bay. A breach of the stack is imminent—the stack operators noticed a pending failure during an inspection and immediately evacuated the area—and is poised to spill 400 million gallons of toxic mining byproducts into Tampa Bay.

The Piney Point stack has spilled wastewater into the bay before. In 2001 Tropical Storm Gabrielle brought heavy rains that forced the state to release 10 million gallons of wastewater into the bay, in order to prevent an even larger spill from a breach. That waste went straight into Bishop Harbor, a beautiful maze of mangroves teeming with speckled trout and redfish. Heavy rains in 2003 triggered a similar release, and in 2011 the stack operator punctured the liner on the stack by accident and ended up spilling 170 million gallons of contaminated water into the bay.

Mac StoneMac Stone
© Mac Stone

Florida Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection Noah Valenstein is on the scene, as is the new Chief Science Officer for Florida, Dr. Mark Rains. Local advocacy groups like Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and Suncoast Waterkeeper are pulling out all the stops to shed light on this issue. This is an all hands on deck moment where Floridians and people from across the country need to speak up for the ocean and coastal resources that we all love, and highlight the threats that they are facing. Sadly, it really feels like this is a wait and see event—the spill is imminent.

In Florida, we need a formal, public investigation and inventory of the two dozen phosphogypsum stacks in the region, and a review needs to be done on a regular basis to prevent the threats to our ocean and coastal environment from future breaches. The FDEP is a strong regulatory authority that needs to be even further empowered on the issues of phosphogypsum stack regulation in order to prevent operators from spilling these hazardous materials into the bay, whether from excessive rainfall or failures due to accidents or errors on behalf of the operator.

The phosphate mining industry creates significant threats to our environment, and to our coastwide economy. And the threats keep coming—currently a Texas oil company has submitted an application to drill for oil in Big Cypress National Preserve, which is a key ecosystem in the Western Everglades. An oil spill or failure of oil drilling equipment in the Everglades would be as tragic as what is unfolding in Piney Point, and we as Floridians can’t afford to stand by and idly watch as our iconic environment is under threat.

The post Florida Water Emergency: The Piney Point Phosphogypsum Crisis Unfolding Before Our Eyes appeared first on Ocean Conservancy.

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