Guest Column
The latest bad idea for Piney Point and Florida’s accident-prone phosphate industry: aquifer injection | Column
This dangerous idea would set the precedent for an out-of-sight and out-of-mind approach with significant risks.
This is an aerial drone image from Piney Point on April 14, 2021, in Palmetto.
This is an aerial drone image from Piney Point on April 14, 2021, in Palmetto.
Published Oct. 8

How quickly those who profit from the phosphate industry would like us to forget.

It’s been just six months since the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack failed, prompting the release of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater that forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes in Manatee County and killed thousands of tons of fish, sea turtles and manatees.

Jaclyn Lopez
Jaclyn Lopez [ Provided ]

Now Manatee County officials are proposing to hide Piney Point’s toxic waste problem by injecting it underground into the vulnerable, porous karst geology that holds the groundwater supplies millions of Floridians depend on.

This dangerous, extremely short-sighted plan would be nothing less than a risky experiment, pumping the remaining millions of gallons of toxic wastewater underground.

Worse yet, this would set the precedent for an out-of-sight and out-of-mind approach with significant risks.

It should never be allowed happen.

Recognizing the state’s heavy reliance on groundwater, nearly 40 years ago the Florida Legislature passed the Water Quality Assurance Act banning hazardous waste in injection wells.

The law explains that this commonsense protective measure is necessary due to Florida’s thin soil cover, shallow water table, highly porous and channelized limestone formation, high and uneven rainfall, and saltwater intrusion. For those reasons, the law notes that disposal of hazardous waste in injection wells is not an environmentally sound practice.

Yet, the new Piney Point permit application requests to inject industrial wastewater into the lower Floridan aquifer — without pretreatment to address that toxic waste!

Here’s why that request should be rejected.

The phosphogypsum is the waste generated by production of phosphate fertilizer. The waste is produced when phosphate rock is processed to make phosphoric acid by chemically reacting it with sulfuric acid.

This acidic waste solution generally contains uranium, thorium and radium, as well as arsenic, chromium, selenium, cadmium, radium-226, lead, vanadium, copper, antimony, thallium and fluoride. And in the case of the phosphogypsum and process wastewater at Piney Point, it also contains phosphorous, ammonia and nitrogen.

The waste at Piney Point is hazardous and therefore cannot be permitted for injection into our aquifers.

Moreover, the area where the well is proposed has not been well-studied. There has been no measurable data provided demonstrating the wastewater could be completely confined in the lower Floridan aquifer. And it is possible these waste materials could migrate within that aquifer, posing threats to communities beyond the injection site.

In addition, the application does not appear to take into account the impact that saltwater intrusion may have on Florida’s aquifer system, especially in light of projected sea-level rise and the project’s projected 40-year timeframe.

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Finally, while Piney Point is a particularly problematic phosphogypsum stack, it is not unique. Florida is saddled with 1 billion tons of phosphogypsum in 25 stacks, and the fertilizer industry adds approximately 30 million tons each year.

The truth is fertilizer production is a nasty business. Along with tearing up hundreds of thousands of acres of Florida habitat to strip-mine for phosphate, the industry generates toxic waste when it creates the phosphoric acid used in fertilizer. This radioactive material is then stored in “stacks” hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall in perpetuity because it poses an unacceptable risk of fatal cancer.

The Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Manatee County’s application confirm that the waste will not be treated for any of these hazardous constituents prior to injection. If the Florida Department of Environmental Protection authorizes this permit it may establish dangerous precedent for future phosphogypsum stack management, opening the door to other injection wells for Florida’s two dozen gypstacks.

Take for example, the New Wales gypstack. In 2016, a sinkhole opened in it dumping at least 215 million gallons of wastewater and an unknown amount of phosphogypsum into an aquifer that supplies drinking water to millions of Floridians.

It turned out this was at least the fourth sinkhole in this stack. Rather than demand closure, Florida regulators issued a permit to expand this sinkhole-prone stack by another 230 acres. What happens next time there’s a sinkhole or a breach?

Will deep-well injection be offered as the next best “solution” to avert environmental calamity?

A much better idea is for state regulators to stop letting this toxic industry use Florida as the dumping ground for its waste. Period.

Jaclyn Lopez is the Florida director and senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in St. Petersburg.