A barge containing treated waste water from the abandoned Piney Point plant near Palmetto is now headed into the Gulf of Mexico as part of a desperate — and risky — attempt to prevent a catastrophic spill into Tampa Bay. As troubling as the situation is, it’s just one example of how badly state and federal officials have bungled oversight of Florida’s phosphate industry through the years.
Piney Point is, by the state’s own admission, one of the biggest threats to the environment in Florida’s history. If officials don’t get rid of 700 million gallons of highly acidic water left behind at the plant, heavy rains could send the toxic waste flowing onto nearby roads and into an adjacent harbor that leads to Tampa Bay.
The barge will disperse the treated waste water far into the Gulf, but the plan remains worrisome because of the risk that the waste may damage marine life and promote blooms of the algae that cause red tide. The barge plan, unfortunately, is the best of a bad set of options. Doing nothing would be disastrous.
Dangers too long ignored
Doing nothing was essentially the state’s approach until two years ago. As the Herald- Tribune and others have reported in recent weeks, the Department of Environmental Protection was aware of mounting financial and environmental problems at Piney Point long before its owner, Mulberry Corp., filed for bankruptcy in 2001. It was only after the owner abandoned the site that the DEP took substantive action.
The water at Piney Point is pooled atop towering stacks of phosphogypsum, a mildly radioactive byproduct of the processing of phosphate for use as fertilizer. Even after the water is removed, the mounds will remain indefinitely. No safe use has been found for phosphogypsum.
And Piney Point is not an isolated case. Two dozen phosphogypsum stacks are scattered around West and Central Florida. New safety practices, including liners designed to prevent the waste water from seeping into ground water, have been introduced in recent years to reduce the environmental dangers that the stacks pose.
But none of those measures solves the larger problem: Unless a safe way of disposing of phosphogypsum can be found, those towering stacks will be with us forever — defying the industry’s contention that phosphate mining is a temporary use of the land.
While Florida officials scurry to prevent a spill at Piney Point, another disaster looms in Hillsborough County at a plant that processes phosphate for use in an animal feed supplement.
A recent investigation by the Tampa Tribune found high levels of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and other carcinogens at the Coronet Industries facility in Plant City. This week, the Tribune and WFLA- TV detailed allegations by several former Coronet employees that they were instructed by the superiors to conceal pollution problems. The allegations have prompted Hillsborough’s top environmental official to call for a criminal inquiry. Health officials are also looking into the medical complaints of people who live near Coronet.
The Coronet plant’s troubles rival those at Piney Point. Through a succession of owners over a 35-year period, the Piney Point plant compiled atrocious safety and environmental records. Failures resulted in several employee deaths, numerous toxic spills and two major releases of toxic gases a decade ago.
A disaster-prone industry
The problems at Piney Point and Coronet are extreme but not unusual in the disaster-prone phosphate industry. Over the years, the industry has caused toxic spills in the Peace and Alafia Rivers and a 180-foot-deep sinkhole that opened atop a phosphogypsum stack in Polk County.
Despite numerous attempts to tighten regulations — sometimes with the cooperation of the industry — Florida continues to be plagued by phosphate horror stories.
Before more disasters occur, the Bush administrations in Tallahassee and Washington should order a full-scale review of phosphate industry practices as well as government regulations and monitoring.
A qualified agency, such as the National Academy of Sciences, should be directed to prepare a study on the regionwide, cumulative impacts of phosphate mining and processing on Florida’s environment. The timing of such a study is critical because the industry is preparing to push its operations deeper into Southwest Florida — adding yet more phosphate waste to the landscape.
A barge churning across the Gulf of Mexico, spreading a load of waste water, isn’t a pretty sight. It’s evidence of what happens when public officials turn the other way. It’s time — long past time — they paid attention to the many long-term risks posed by the phosphate industry.