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DEP works out deal with Mosaic requiring sinkhole cleanup

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced late Monday that it had worked out a consent order with Mosaic requiring a cleanup at the massive sinkhole that opened at its facility in Mulberry this summer.

To guarantee its cooperation, the order says, Mosaic is required to put up $40 million in financial assurances — something usually posted as a performance bond. And if it fails to follow through on the entire order, the company will face fines of up to $10,000 per day.

The DEP announcement, sent to the Tampa Bay Times at 5:23 p.m., said Mosaic will be required to seal the sinkhole, recover all the pollution that drained into the aquifer when it opened up in August and make sure that its waste never again threatens the aquifer.

"We're requiring Mosaic to take steps at all their facilities in Florida to prevent future incidents like this one," DEP Secretary Jon Steverson said in the announcement.

A Mosaic spokeswoman declined to comment on the announcement, instead directing a reporter to a statement posted on the company's website.

"Ensuring the safety of our community and employees, and the proper management of environmental resources, continues to be our top priority as we remediate the sinkhole," Mosaic vice president Walt Precourt said in the statement. In the order, Mosaic contends that what happened was beyond its control, and it does not admit any blame.

This is not Mosaic's first hazardous waste problem. A year ago, Mosaic agreed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay nearly $2 billion to settle a federal lawsuit over mishandling of hazardous waste and to clean up operations at six Florida sites and two in Louisiana. One was the same Mulberry phosphate processing plant where the sinkhole occurred.

The 45-foot-wide, 220-foot-deep sinkhole opened up under a 120-foot-tall phosphogypsum stack at the Mulberry plant near the Hillsborough-Polk county line on Aug. 27, swallowing about 215 million gallons of contaminated water that had been in a pool atop the stack.

The acidic water that fell into the hole was laced with sulfate and sodium. The acid level is roughly equivalent to vinegar or lemon juice. An unknown amount of gypsum, a fertilizer byproduct with low levels of radiation, also fell in.

The company quickly notified the DEP, the EPA and Polk County officials, but no one told the plant's neighbors or the public what had happened.

This is the second sinkhole to open at that plant. After the first in 1994, Mosaic notified the public within a week.

When word of this new sinkhole got out in mid September, Mosaic officials apologized for keeping it quiet.

Gov. Rick Scott initially defended the DEP for doing the same, noting that state law did not require the agency to tell anyone unless the pollution was detected migrating off Mosaic's land. But then Scott did an about-face, proclaiming the state law "stupid" and vowing to change it.

Scott told the DEP to impose a new rule, which he would work to make state law next year, requiring every company and government agency to notify the public within 24 hours of any pollution spill.

Since then, Mosaic has received more than 1,000 requests for tests on private drinking wells around its plant, and has agreed to supply bottled water to more than 900 residents. The order requires Mosaic to provide clean water should any tests show pollution has spread to a private well.

So far, the company says, no tests conducted by its contractor have shown any signs that the contamination has crept into its neighbors' drinking water. Still, some neighbors have filed a class-action suit against the company to ensure a cleanup occurs.

The consent order that the DEP unveiled Monday requires the company to keep checking the aquifer for signs of contamination in a 4-mile radius from the sinkhole until at least December 2018 to ensure that local residents continue to have a safe source of drinking water. It also requires sealing the sinkhole the way it sealed the one in 1994: drilling holes into its sides and filling it with grout.

Mosaic must also investigate the rest of its Mulberry property to make sure no other sinkholes are likely to open under another gypsum stack, the order says.

Mosaic had been seeking a permit to expand the Mulberry plant before the sinkhole opening. As part of the permitting, the company had submitted to the DEP studies showing the expansion would not cause geological problems.

"The sinkhole formation represents an unstable area that has occurred since approval of the prior evaluations," the order notes, requiring fresh studies before any such permit can be approved.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

DEP works out deal with Mosaic requiring sinkhole cleanup 10/24/16 [Last modified: Monday, October 24, 2016 9:15pm]
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