Given the unfortunate options before them, Florida regulators probably have no choice but to use the Gulf of Mexico as a sewer for phosphate waste. But let no one in state government mark this off as unavoidable environmental fate. What is happening with this massive heap of phosphogypsum waste near Port Manatee was foreseeable and the product of nearly three decades of regulatory neglect.
Now, thanks to the 2001 bankruptcy of Mulberry Corp., the state owns this mess.
“If we have a failure of the dike system . . . pretty much anything it comes in contact with would be killed in that part of Tampa Bay,” Allan Bedwell, a Florida Department of Environmental Protection deputy secretary told lawmakers recently. “. . . It’s like the Grand Canyon, only filled with acidic process water.”
Gypsum stacks are mountainous reminders of the waste that phosphate mining leaves behind. There are roughly 20 of them in Central Florida. The gypsum is slightly radioactive, and the processing water is highly acidic. Spills from these from stacks have periodically poisoned the Tampa Bay environs. A 1997 spill destroyed marine life in a 30-mile stretch of the Alafia River.
State regulators worry about the impact of continued rainfall on the Piney Point stack. The stack is akin to a huge soup bowl, and too much water can cause the acidic waste to spill over the top or breach the sides. The consequences for nearby Bishop Harbor would be disastrous, so regulators are proposing to pump 700-million gallons of the water to Port Manatee and then ship it out into the gulf.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to approve the gulf dumping, but the state faces a financial hurdle as well. DEP says it needs $45-million to begin the job and roughly $115- million more to finish it, yet the state’s reclamation fund is nearly empty. That fund was created for precisely this purpose, but phosphate companies persuaded Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature to reduce the phosphate severance tax in 2000. The Florida Phosphate Council, recognizing its own culpability, is now telling lawmakers its members would agree to restore the tax to pre-2000 levels. Their support carries some unacceptable fine print: They argue the Legislature should, at the same time, divert money the tax currently provides for environmental land purchases.
The most pressing need is to begin draining this acidic canyon, and state regulators can be commended for their sense of urgency. Lawmakers, who are being asked to pick up the tab, might want to take a look in the mirror. These mountains are not easy to miss, but the state has done little through the years to change the landscape.