The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has broad concerns about Florida’s phosphate industry and the hazardous waste they leave behind in the form of huge “gypstacks”. The EPA finds radiation in the form of gamma radiation from these dangerous waste dumps.
One of EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) primary concerns with phosphate mines in Florida is with gypsum stacks (gypstack). This concern centers around the fact that radium-226 breaks down into radon gas (1). When Radon gas is an airborne hazard, it leads to greater exposures downwind of the gypstacks.
Such airborne exposures are of particular concern to nearby communities like Progress Village, in southwest-central Florida, where a fairly new, very dangerous gypsum stack is rising a few hundred yards from an elementary school. Based on a report from US News & World, Report, “there is evidence to suggest cancer rates downwind of the stacks may be elevated”. Scientists noted that previous phosphate mining created increased concentrations of radium-226 by testing area soils in question. (1)
Radioactive Heavy Metal Phosphate Waste
Radium produces gamma rays that can penetrate the body and increase one’s risk of cancer. Inhaling or swallowing radioactive by-products may increase the risk of the following cancers; bone cancer, specifically, leukemia, and lymphoma. “Trace elements associated with phosphate rock, many of which are considered heavy metals, that may be present in reclaimed soils include arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lanthanum, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, uranium, vanadium, and zinc.” (3)
Extensive water quality sampling is conducted on reclaimed phosphate-mined land, and none of these metals appear to be a concern for water quality. The DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) requires groundwater and surface water testing for each of the elements mentioned above in current mining permits.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Superfund program considers the amount of radon gas entering homes and buildings from reclaimed phosphate mine lands. Its decisions regarding whether to remediate man-made radioactive contamination sites are usually driven primarily by how much of the radioactive metals are present, in this case, a reclaimed Florida phosphate strip mine.
The radium in soil threshold used by EPA officials typically uses the standard of five picocuries per gram (radiation/mass), not including the amount of radium that would occur in soil naturally. It is at this level of radium and below the agency would consider a site not to be contaminated based on its cancer risk guidelines.(1)
Florida Phosphate Industry Refusing To Accept Safety Standard
In its 2006 report, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated the federal government has relied upon the “five picocuries” per gram (radiation/mass) of soil standard at many sites and listed some in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, New York and Michigan as examples. These areas produce little phosphate rock relatively to Florida. However, Florida officials considered the threshold to be “overly conservative,” the federal agency’s report noted (4).
The phosphate industry found at least one regular consumer of one of its waste products called silicofluorides. Municipal water treatment facilities used this waste product and based on recent estimates; the phosphate industry sells approximately 200,000 tons of silicofluorides (hydro-fluorosilicic acid & sodium silicofluoride) to US communities each year for use as a water fluoridation agent, (Coplan & Masters). (3) 200,000 tons of this particular phosphate waste is a small amount relative to what is produced in the mining process overall.
Environmental Catastrophe Based on Phosphate Mining in Florida
With the emergence of “the sinkhole” in the worst possible place, the stack transforms from looming presence to immediate crisis. Untold amounts of contaminated water running from the gypsum stack rush in the sinkhole. The sinkhole expands to about 160 feet in diameter and about 200 feet deep. Untold volumes of contaminated waste in the form of radioactive phosphate slurry drain directly through the sinkhole opening into the Upper Floridan Aquifer, a vital source of drinking water in Southwest Central Florida. The sinkhole stopped growing when experts succeeded in plugging the sinkhole with concrete. (2) The local citizens of Florida do not here much from the local or national press even with the types of tragic events described above.
Florida is the center of phosphate mega-mining in the United States and one of a small handful of globally significant phosphate strip mine locations. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Florida extracted about 75 percent of the nation’s phosphate and 25 percent of all global phosphate rock mining. The sheer scale of the impact of this extraction on the Floridian Peninsula is immense: in 1999, 300,000 acres of land strip mined. This is one percent of the state’s surface area and is a sixteen-year-old statistic.
Florida Mining Reclamation Paradigm Change
Designers might also directly engage open terrain. In her essay Big Nature, landscape architect Jane Amidon calls for a shift in perspective and a recognition that sites are producers ‘living systems ‘linked to supply and demand networks. Along with this reframing, Amidon advocates a future role for design in which the practice of landscape moves beyond reclamation. There is a proactive, rather than reactive stance.
More Reclamation Options Needed
Rob Holmes is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Florida. Holmes practiced landscape architecture with Michael Vergason Landscape Architects and taught in Virginia, Louisiana, and Ohio. His work involves discovering new modes of addressing reciprocal relationships between contemporary urbanization, infrastructure networks, and large-scale anthropogenic landscape change.
Today, the center for investigations is the Four Coasts project. Research Collaborative (co-founded by Holmes), and design research on hydrological control infrastructures, (aquifer systems), in South Florida, supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
The Florida phosphate industry (historically) is notorious for leaving industrial waste in abandoned strip mines. Also abandoned is the burden of mined land reclamation, being left for the Florida taxpayers. The most disturbing issue is the “gypstack”. Radiation in the form of gamma rays emits from these huge mounds of hazardous waste every day. Maybe this local issue will be heard by all, with the help from experts like Rob Holmes.
(1) EPA Abandons Major Radiation Cleanup in Florida,
(2) MINING: Army Corps tries to assess impacts of sprawling phosphate
(4) Department of Environmental Protection
• See FAN’s November 6, 2015, submission to the U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA on the two Consent Decrees issued on the gross pollution at Mosaic’s site in Florida and Alabama.
• Check out Florida Mines at https://www.flmines.com