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Gov. Scott defends environmental agency's handling of sinkhole water spill

Published Sep. 23, 2016

TAMPA — Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday came to the defense of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection over its handling of a spill of 215 million gallons of contaminated water into a sinkhole below a Mosaic phosphate plant in Mulberry.

Environmentalists and some Democratic politicians have criticized the DEP for failing to notify the public, especially neighbors of the New Wales phosphate plant, many of whom still rely on well water.

"Within 24 hours after they (the DEP) were notified, they started the investigation,'' Scott said. "If somebody's done anything wrong, we're going to hold them accountable.''

The 45-foot-wide sinkhole opened beneath a gypsum stack that was storing acidic water that also contains sulphur and sodium. The sinkhole, located about a mile east of the Hills­borough-Polk county line, is believed to go down to the Floridan Aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the state.

Mosaic notified the DEP that water levels were dropping on Aug. 28. The agency dispatched investigators to the site but did not inform the public.

It was only after the sinkhole was reported in the media three weeks later that the DEP acknowledged the spill and announced it would coordinate with Mosaic, which has agreed to pay for a third-party company to test wells on neighboring properties. Since then, Mosaic has received 210 requests for well testing from residents concerned about their drinking water.

Speaking with reporters after an event at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Scott skirted questions about why the DEP didn't inform the public sooner.

"They're working with Mosaic to make sure we put that information out as quickly as possible," he said. "But they started their investigation immediately."

On Wednesday, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton added her voice to criticism of how the spill was handled.

In an interview with WFTS-Ch. 28 during a campaign stop in Orlando, Clinton said Mosaic must be held accountable for the spill and be required to clean up the contamination.

"I think what happened as I understand it about Mosaic was terribly risky and posed serious threats to the aquifer and clean water," Clinton said. "It went on for weeks without there being any kind of announcement."

State law does not require the DEP to inform the public about a spill into the aquifer if it has not spread off-site. DEP officials described their response to the spill as going "above and beyond the requirements of Florida law by working with Mosaic to notify the nearest adjacent home­owners who may want their drinking water wells tested."

In a release sent Thursday, DEP officials said investigators were not able to confirm a sinkhole as the cause of the drop in water levels until Sept. 7, when it was spotted on an aerial photograph.

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The nearest private well is 3 miles from the sinkhole, and there is no indication of a threat to that well's water quality, the release states.

Scott has directed the DEP to expedite its investigation of the spill and asked the Florida Department of Health to work with the DEP to ensure drinking water is safe.

Mosaic officials say tests from wells on its 1,600-acre site show the spill has so far been contained beneath its property.

Water in the aquifer beneath the New Wales plant travels in a westerly direction and moves slowly, only about 1,000 feet per month, according to the company.

Mosaic installed a pump into a backup well located west of the gypsum stack to draw contaminated water from the aquifer back to the surface.

"We have started to see traces of the sodium and sulphate," said spokeswoman Jackie Barron. "The water coming up is still at safe drinking standards."

Still, Mosaic now faces a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday by the law firm Morgan & Morgan and the New York firm of Weitz & Luxenberg on behalf of three Lithia residents whose homes rely on private wells.

It claims that the New Wales plant is the largest fertilizer manufacturing facility in the world and that Mosaic "recklessly and negligently managed, operated and stored toxic radioactive wastewater."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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