The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just announced that 29 areas of the country flunked its new, tighter standards for a type of air pollution called sulfur dioxide — one of the main components of smog — and one of them was in Hillsborough County.
The polluter singled out by the EPA was not a smoke-belching power plant or an industrial incinerator. It was a plant that employs 330 people to turn phosphate rocks into fertilizer. It has been doing the same job in the same spot by the Alafia River since 1928.
The owner of the plant at 8813 U.S. 41 S in Riverview is Mosaic, the biggest phosphate miner in the world. Company officials have known for two years that this was likely to happen, spokesman David Townsend said, and have been working with county and state officials on finding ways to clean up its pollution.
So far, they aren't sure what they're going to do or how much it will cost. But under EPA regulations, Townsend said, the company doesn't have to meet the new standards until 2018 — five years from its official violation notice last month.
"Mosaic will be in full compliance by the required deadline," he said.
The EPA imposed tighter standards on sulfur dioxide because of its impact on the health of children, the elderly and people with asthma and other lung diseases, agency spokeswoman Ernesta Jones said. The effects can include narrowing of the airways, making it harder to breathe.
Smog — which often shows up as a ugly ocher smudge along the horizon, like a ring around the bathtub of Tampa Bay — has long been a summertime problem in this region. Roughly half of the area's air pollution woes come from what spews out of the tailpipes of cars and trucks criss-crossing the highways and bridges.
Power plants are major contributors, too. Florida's coal and oil-fired electric power plants —including Tampa Electric's Big Bend plant and Duke's Crystal River plant — emitted 33.4 million pounds of harmful chemicals in 2009 and accounted for 68 percent of the air pollution statewide. In 2000, the EPA targeted Tampa Electric with a $15 million fine and a settlement requiring it to clean up its sulfur dioxide emissions.
Meanwhile, though, the Mosaic plant has been steadily pumping out sulfur dioxide year after year as part of its process that uses sulfuric acid to turn hard phosphate rock into water-soluble fertilizer.
The old EPA standard allowed a plant like Mosaic's to produce 140 parts per billion of sulfur dioxide, measured over 24 hours. When the state Department of Environmental Protection issued the Riverview plant its most recent air pollution permit in April 2009, that was the applicable standard, said DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie.
But EPA officials decided that using a daylong average allowed too many polluters to emit high concentrations of sulfur dioxide over short periods of time. Even short bursts of the pollutant is bad for people's health. So in June 2010, the EPA tightened the standard to 75 parts per billion measured in one hour.
Air pollution monitors operated by the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission showed one part of the county was putting out far more sulfur dioxide than any other, in violation of the new standard. It wasn't hard to find the culprit.
"The violation at this site can be overwhelmingly attributed to a single source," DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. wrote to the EPA in 2011, pointing a finger at the Mosaic plant.
On July 26, newly sworn EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy signed a 54-page rule designating 29 areas in 16 states as failing to meet the new standard — three-fourths of them because of what the EPA called "fossil fuel combustion at power plants." But in Florida, the two areas that flunked were the one around the Mosaic plant and the area around the Rayonier Performance Fibers mill in Nassau County, near Jacksonville.
Officials from the Hillsborough EPC have been working with Mosaic to figure out what the company needs to do to fix the problem, said the EPC's Alain Watson.
Ultimately, Townsend said, "a variety of process improvements and technical adjustments will have to be made. We're confident we'll get there."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]