Huge, slow-moving tropical storms are bound to damage roads, utilities and buildings in the Tampa Bay area, but the mountainous spill of acidic waste from Cargill Crop Nutrition is not an acceptable casualty of Frances.
A wall along one side of the 10-story-high phosphogypsum stack broke Sunday, presumably under the strain of heavy wind and rain, and spewed 60-million gallons of the wastewater into a creek that leads into Hillsborough Bay. Don’t be mistaken. This is not like a breached retention pond, which happened in Pasco, or a neighborhood flooded by bay water, which happened in Northeast St. Petersburg. Those create inconvenience, property damage and some danger from bacteria. In the case of the Cargill stack, this is a spill of corrosive water that can burn to the touch and most assuredly will kill marine life. It is, by every common definition, hazardous.
“This is not even domestic wastewater. This is corrosive hazardous waste with a lot of radiation in it,” said Thomas Reese, a St. Petersburg attorney who is an expert on state water quality law. “How many more times do we have to see these kind of spills before we react?”
The spill is a reminder of the threat these gypsum stacks pose. Some 24 of them still tower over the Central Florida landscape, acting as waste repositories for phosphate mining. The state has generally toughened the standards by which the stacks are built, but the Cargill mountain is a reminder that much is left to be done.
Cargill can take credit for a stronger record of environmental stewardship in the past 15 years, in the time since it capped off and closed a stack whose spills had become a regular nuisance to Tampa Bay. Indeed, Cargill helped the state deal with the mess created farther south when the Piney Point phosphate plant failed three years ago. The company also was quick to report Sunday’s problems to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and company vice president Gray Gordon was contrite. “We feel terrible that this has happened,” Gordon told reporters. “We’re sick about it.”
Still, the conditions that led to the breach were largely foreseeable. The summer rains already had caused the water to reach dangerously high levels, and the storm was sure to bring more. Further mining and waste production, under such conditions, would have been unwise to the point of being negligent.
The point for regulators is that this mountain is located in a designated coastal high hazard zone in an area that is subject to heavy rain and tropical storms and hurricanes. The design simply has to take such factors into account. Yet current laws provide for too little capacity to handle such conditions. Clearly the Cargill stack wasn’t large enough to be able to handle gypsum water and heavy rains. Why not? Mobile homes may not be constructed to withstand hurricanes, but mountains of acidic waste must be.
Cargill has shown its willingness to work with state and county environmental officers, but that does not relieve the company of a heavy financial burden in this disaster. Regulatory agencies are supposed to protect the public and wildlife from harm, and this spill cannot be excused as an unfortunate byproduct of a tropical storm.