Phosphogypsum is a long word for a big problem, and the dangerous dilemma at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack on Tampa Bay in Manatee County highlights the need for strict federal regulation of gyp stacks everywhere.
Thirty years ago, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency determined that while this radioactive, toxic waste had the qualities of a hazardous waste, it would not regulate it as such. Instead, the EPA decided that the fertilizer industry that produced it could just pile it in mountains called phosphogypsum stacks, or “gyp stacks.” Gyp stacks are hundreds of feet tall, hundreds of acres wide and have huge lagoons at their top containing hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater that is highly acidic and radioactive with heavy metal contaminants.
There are now more than 70 of these gyp stacks in the United States, with almost half in Florida, on top of our sinkhole-prone, just-barely-above-sea-level terrain. Many of these stacks are located right on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Phosphogypsum and process wastewater are produced from the processing of strip-mined phosphate ore into phosphoric acid, a fertilizer component. For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, you get five tons of phosphogypsum. Yep, those big mountain piles you see driving through Riverview on U.S. 41 are gyp stacks. Like all gyp stacks, they have big problems.
In 1997, one stack in Mulberry breached and flooded into the Alafia River, killing everything in the water all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2004, a gyp stack in Riverview breached at the top during a hurricane, spilling its toxic contents, which eventually made their way into Hillsborough Bay, causing a massive fish kill. Mississippi has two gyp stacks, which together are now a Superfund site. Taxpayers are paying almost a million dollars a month to clean up the pollution after the fertilizer company went bankrupt. Louisiana has a stack that is shifting because it was piled on unstable, soft clay soils.
Piney Point, the gyp stack in Manatee County, has a long history of toxic wastewater releases to Bishop’s Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico. Also a leftover of a bankrupt company, this stack has been a disaster waiting to happen. Manatee County is now considering deep well injection into the Floridan aquifer to get rid of the stack wastewater.
Two gyp stacks at a Mulberry fertilizer facility have had multiple problems, including two major sinkhole accidents. A 2016 sinkhole disaster dumped 215 million gallons of acidic, radioactive, contaminated wastewater directly into the Floridan aquifer, along with an undetermined amount of gyp stack solids. Florida Department of Environmental Protection took three weeks after knowing about the incident to report it to the public. Ten million people drink from this aquifer. EPA where are you?
Gyp stacks are often and not surprisingly located near poor communities that have little resources to defend themselves against a giant industry. No studies have been done to determine the extent of the health impacts to people living near these piles of phosphogypsum.
The EPA has abdicated its responsibility to regulate phosphogypsum as hazardous waste, leaving management to the states, with disastrous results. That’s why on Feb. 8, 17 grassroots environmental organizations and public health groups filed a legal petition to the EPA seeking strict federal regulation of phosphogypsum and process water as hazardous and toxic waste.
We hope that with new leadership at the EPA, the agency will finally take full responsibility for this problem. But we need the help of everyone who cares about the waters of Florida and beyond.
Brooks Armstrong is president of People for Protecting Peace River, an organization dedicated to ending the environmental harms of the phosphate fertilizer industry.