Editorial: Mosaic sinkhole shows need for openness, crisis planning

Published Nov. 3, 2016

A new time line of the massive Mosaic sinkhole reveals the Swiss cheese that passes for emergency planning in such potential environmental disasters. Company officials took more than a week to blame a sinkhole for dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water into the aquifer. Though Gov. Rick Scott has sharpened the state's response in the wake of the spill, there is more the Florida Legislature can do to ensure the next public health threat is treated as more than a public relations challenge.

The time line, reported by the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman, shows that workers first learned something had gone wrong on Aug. 27. The level in a 78-acre pond of polluted water atop a 190-foot phosphogypsum stack at the company's Mulberry phosphate plant had dropped more than a foot. By the next morning, the level had dropped 3 feet. A sinkhole 45 feet wide and 220 feet deep had opened up, sending 215 million gallons of contaminated water pouring into the aquifer that supplies the region's drinking water.

Geologists said the cause of the drop should have been obvious. But state records show it took the company more than a week to use the word "sinkhole." Both Mosaic and the state avoided using the term until Sept. 9. And the public didn't find out until Sept. 15, 19 days after the crisis started. That followed a telephone call to Mosaic from a Tampa television news reporter. Even the state's top environmental regulator said he was in the dark, which is why he didn't tell the governor about the incident until Sept. 16, the day after it hit the news.

The question now is whether this was a mystery or an exercise in damage control. Mosaic was prompt in notifying the state's Department of Environmental Protection about the water loss. But it didn't mention any sinkhole, noting instead a tear in the liner under the gypsum stack. Geologists said that should have been clue enough. "If they knew there was a tear in the liner," said Robert Brinkmann, a Hofstra University geology professor who wrote a book on the science of sinkholes in Florida, "they knew there was something draining that water down into the aquifer." A longtime sinkhole expert from Palm Harbor, N.S. "Sandy" Nettles, laughed at the reluctance to use the term "sinkhole." A torn liner, he said, "means it was probably leaking for a very long time."

State inspectors who arrived at the plant within 24 hours of Mosaic's call did not use the term "sinkhole" either, referring to it as a "water loss incident." By the time the pond disappeared Sept. 6, Mosaic said it had spotted "a fissure." A spokeswoman said the company "generally" referred to the problem as a sinkhole on Sept. 6, though Mosaic used the word for the first time in reports to state and federal regulators on Sept. 9. The news became public nearly a week later, but only after a reporter asked questions. Mosaic has since apologized for keeping quiet.

The quickest way to resolve a problem is to acknowledge it. While Scott ordered a new rule in the wake of the sinkhole that requires responsible parties to notify the DEP, local agencies and the general public within 24 hours of a spill, the measure does not go far enough. The DEP should also be required to notify the public, and the changes should be enshrined in state law, with stiff financial penalties to give polluters a bigger incentive to comply. The state should also require that companies posing a risk to environmental conditions toughen contingency plans to respond to a crisis, similar to what the federal government required of companies in the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

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The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico showed that these plans are not always perfect. Mosaic appears to be working in good faith on the cleanup effort. But there needs to be better and clearer communication about what's happening in the field. Call a sinkhole a sinkhole.