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After 3-week delay telling public about contaminated sinkhole, Gov. Rick Scott wants faster notice

For three weeks, Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials kept mum about a phosphate mine's 300-foot-deep sinkhole that dumped 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the state's aquifer. When they finally told the public earlier this month, officials said they went "above and beyond" what they were required to do.

Now Gov. Rick Scott has changed what's required.

Effectively immediately, Scott announced Monday, he wants DEP to come up with a new rule requiring the owner or operator of any facility — including a city or county government — "to provide notification of incidents of pollution within 24 hours to DEP, local governments and the general public through the media."

Scott said he was taking this step because of the delay in reporting the sinkhole incident to neighbors of the Mosaic plant in Mulberry and the delay in St. Petersburg officials reporting the tens of millions of gallons of sewage that the city's aging wastewater system released into Tampa Bay after Hurricane Hermine passed by earlier this month.

"It does not make sense that the public is not immediately notified when pollution incidents occur," the governor said in a prepared statement. "Today, I am demanding any business, county or city government responsible for a pollution incident to immediately tell the public. That is common sense and our residents deserve that."

The governor said he will also propose legislation next year to turn that requirement into state law. The current law requires the public to be notified only if the contamination moves beyond the property owned by the company or entity that spilled the pollution.

Mosaic officials have since apologized to the public for keeping quiet for so long about what had happened. When the Tampa Bay Times asked the governor's office Monday if the DEP would make a similar apology, or if DEP Secretary Jon Steverson might lose his job over the incident, Scott's press secretary offered this statement:

"Secretary Steverson is focused on this issue at DEP and initiated an investigation immediately following learning of this incident," Lauren Schenone said in an e-mail to the Times. "In this case, it made absolutely no sense that the public wasn't immediately notified and I am glad we have made changes to fix that. Governor Scott is confident Secretary Steverson will continue to work to ensure our drinking water is safe."

Scott is scheduled to tour the phosphate plant Tuesday morning and receive a briefing from officials with Mosaic, the world's largest phosphate company, on what they have done so far to deal with the contamination. Reporters will not be allowed to accompany the governor, but his staff said he will answer some questions afterward.

Scott's announcement on Monday came as local officials in South Florida accused his administration of hiding important information from the public about the ongoing Zika crisis.

The mayors of Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach said they were told by the Florida Department of Health to remain mum about the locations where Zika-carrying mosquitoes were found. State health officials had previously denied telling local officials to withhold that information from the public.

While state officials faced criticism in South Florida, the DEP's stance regarding the Mosaic sinkhole struck a nerve in this region. DEP officials were notified about the sinkhole on Aug. 28 but did not notify the public until Sept. 19. That's not how it was handled when another large sinkhole developed at the same plant in 1994. Back then, the public found out that same week.

DEP officials said that under a 2005 law, they were not required to notify the public until the contamination was detected moving off Mosaic's own property.

Last week, after the Times reported about DEP's failure to notify the public or even nearby homeowners about the acidic water leaking into the aquifer, Scott's office issued a statement entitled "Setting the Record Straight" that quoted Steverson praising his agency for going "above and beyond" what the law required.

But both Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio criticized the DEP for not promptly telling Mosaic's neighbors and the rest of the public about what had been dumped into the aquifer, the source of much of the state's drinking water.

Meanwhile officials from the federal Environmental Protection Agency visited the sinkhole site and some neighbors filed a federal lawsuit against Mosaic.

The company has offered free well tests and bottled water to the plant's neighbors. So far 526 people have requested those services, company officials said. They also said none of the tests undertaken by Mosaic's contractor has found any pollution beyond the phosphate giant's property line.

Mosaic official Eileen Stuart said the company is still reviewing Scott's decision to change the notification process. When it comes to changing the law, she said, "we look forward to working with his office, DEP and the Florida Legislature" and other interested parties "on an improved and transparent approach."

As for St. Petersburg, where city officials waited five days to alert the public about the massive release of sewage, city spokesman Ben Kirby said Mayor Rick Kriseman applauded the governor's decision. He said Kriseman tried to pass a similar measure regarding public notice of pollution problems when he served in the Florida Legislature.

Asked if Scott's new rule would have forced the city to handle its sewage dumping differently, Kirby said: "It would make things a lot different for everybody."

Companies have been mining phosphate from Florida's landscape since the 1800s. The factories that turn the phosphate into fertilizer churn out a radioactive byproduct called phosphogypsum. To dispose of it, the phosphate industry stacks it up into white sandy mountains.

Meanwhile, when the plant uses water it comes out of the factory as corrosive as battery acid. First the water goes into cooling ponds, where some evaporates. Then it's pumped to the top of the stacks. Rainfall adds millions of gallons more.

Mosaic workers became aware of the sinkhole when water levels in a pond atop a 120-foot gypsum stack dropped 2 feet between readings on Aug. 27. They began diverting water from the pond, which can hold up to about 250 million gallons. The pond drained out, with acidic water laced with sulfate and sodium falling into the sinkhole along with an unknown amount of gypsum, a fertilizer byproduct with low levels of radiation.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.