Column: It's time to rein in Florida's phosphate strip mining

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Florida is starting to wake up to its massive phosphate mining problem.

Phosphate mining has not only scarred the face of Florida but created the perpetual threat of contaminated water being released into the Floridan Aquifer, which provides drinking water to millions of people.

Late last week broke the news that a massive sinkhole had opened up in a stack of waste at a Mosaic phosphate mine just 30 miles east of Tampa in New Wales. The sinkhole has already caused at least 215 million gallons of contaminated water to spill into the Floridan Aquifer. The spill had been going on for three weeks before the story broke.

The New Wales sinkhole was not the first phosphogypsum sinkhole, and will likely not be the last, a reality that sheds new light on efforts to expand two of the state's existing phosphate mines and approve a new mine.

Unknown to many Floridians, the state leads the nation in the environmentally destructive practice of phosphate mining, a process that creates phosphogypsum waste — fertilizer byproduct with low levels of radiation — that is stored in stacks hundreds of feet tall. It was in one of those radioactive storage stacks where Mosaic discovered the sinkhole.

Phosphate mines — which require scraping away the earth's surface and removing 60 feet of sand, clay and phosphoric rock — cover 837 square miles of central Florida, an area more than two-thirds the size of Rhode Island.

The bulk of the state's 27 phosphate mines are concentrated in the 1.3 million acre fossil-rich area known as Bone Valley just east of the Tampa area, with the majority of the mining in Polk, Hillsborough, Manatee and Hardee counties.

Phosphogypsum waste is produced when sulfuric acid is applied to phosphoric ore to turn it into phosphoric acid. The process releases and concentrates the naturally occurring low levels of uranium and radium; the EPA considers phosphogypsum radioactive waste and requires it to be stored in above-ground stacks in the hopes of keeping cancer-causing radon gas and the uranium and radium from escaping into the environment.

Five tons of waste are generated for every one ton of usable phosphate. And there's no long-term solution in place for what will be done with the more than 1 billion tons of waste in the stacks that have already been generated.

Open-pit mining also permanently replaces native landscape with so-called "reclaimed land" that can sometimes support non-native species like cogon grass, eucalyptus trees and cows. And studies of waters downstream of phosphate mines have found an increase in heavy metals like lead, and studies of aquifers have found chemicals used to process the phosphate, like fuel oil.

Yet, despite the mines' close proximity to one of the state's largest urban centers, most Floridians know little of their existence, let alone their troubling long-term environmental impacts.

But Florida's dirty little secret is about to get a lot bigger.

A proposal called the South Pasture Extension to expand a surface mine in Hardee County by more than 7,500 acres — including through hundreds of acres of wetlands — is now moving through an Army Corps of Engineers approval process, despite the clear risk the project poses to wildlife, people and the Peace River.

Meanwhile, the Manatee County Planning Commission just voted to expand a different mine called the Wingate East Mine by rezoning more than 3,500 acres of agricultural land for phosphate mining. The Manatee County Board of Commissioners will have the final say on Sept. 29.

And the Bradford County Board of Commissioners is considering a 5,000-acre mine — it would have been a 10,000-acre mine if the Union County Board of Commissioners didn't just approve a one-year moratorium on approving mines — that would bisect the New River and run right through critical habitat for the oval pigtoe, and endangered freshwater mussel.

Given the many unanswered questions about the long-term environmental and health risk associated with an expansion of the mine, the Corps should extend the proposal comment period and hold public hearings on the South Pasture Extension; the Manatee County Board of Commissioners should deny the rezone request at the public hearing on Sept. 29; and Bradford County should likewise deny the request before it, or institute a moratorium until more research can be done on the effects of mining in that area.

More important, the Florida Legislature should revisit its cozy relationship with the industry and fly over the areas already devastated by phosphate mining. They should go back to the books and require restoration, not just reclamation.

Jaclyn Lopez is a Florida native and the Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

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