As environmental regulators and politicians nervously saluted efforts to prevent the catastrophic release of millions of gallons of wastewater from the aging Piney Point phosphogypsum wastewater storage pond near Tampa, Fla., this week, there was scarce little talk of how we got here.
Or of how we’ll prevent similar disasters moving forward.
Much like the country’s toxic coal ash dumps and pollution-spewing oil and gas wells, the dozens of phosphogypsum stacks across Florida and beyond highlight regulatory failures and chronic injustices that pose catastrophic environmental harms and place disproportionate health and safety risks on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and low-wealth communities.
And in the case of many of Florida’s 25 phosphogypsum stacks, those glaring risks have steadily mounted as state and federal officials ignored signs of troubling failures at outdated facilities plagued by aging infrastructure and lax oversight.
Phosphogypsum waste is created during the process of making phosphoric acid, which is widely used in fertilizers. The toxic, radioactive waste is stored in more than 70 of the mountainous waste piles called “phosphogypsum stacks” in communities in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
The gypstacks can contain significant amounts of sulfur, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead and zinc. They also contain radium-226 which has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life.
But with mines and processing facilities that manufacture nearly two-thirds of the phosphate fertilizer produced in the U.S., Florida has always stood at the very epicenter of the escalating risks posed by the industry.
And the potentially catastrophic leaks at Piney Point are only the latest in a series of examples of problems at Florida phosphogypsum stacks.
In 2016 a sinkhole in the New Wales gypstack in Florida released 215 million gallons of process wastewater into the Floridan aquifer that provides drinking water for 10 million people.
In 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached a $2 billion settlement with Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC for commingling 60 billion pounds of hazardous waste with other waste products in Florida and Louisiana.
In 2009 a sinkhole in the PCS gypstack in White Springs, Florida released 84 million gallons of process wastewater.
In 2004 the Riverview gypstack in Florida discharged 65 million gallons of process wastewater into Hillsborough Bay, Fla.
And there have been numerous problems documented at phosphogypsum stacks in other states.
In 2020 the EPA reached a $775,000 settlement with J.R. Simplot Company for commingling hazardous waste at a gypstack with other waste in Wyoming.
In Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” the Uncle Sam gypstack has been moving laterally since 2019 causing significant concern of catastrophic collapse.
In 2017 the EPA designated the Mississippi phosphate gypstack a Superfund site where the groundwater is now contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium and thallium and the soils are contaminated with chromium, nickel and radium.
Many of these gypstacks are in BIPOC and/or low-wealth communities.
For example, the shifting Uncle Sam gypstack is in an area of Louisiana with the highest rates of cancer from air pollution. Gypstacks emit radon, the second leading cause of lung cancer.
The gypstacks in Riverview Florida were built just 1,000 feet from Progress Village, a historically Black neighborhood that has become an industrial sacrifice zone anchored by the looming gypstacks.
And in October 2020, without public notice or comment, the EPA approved the use of radioactive phosphogypsum in road construction, reversing its long-standing scientific determination it would present an unacceptable risk to public health. The EPA’s approval of the use of phosphogypsum in roads is in litigation.
As a result, in February conservation organizations petitioned the EPA to restrict use of phosphogypsum and process wastewater due to the unreasonable risk they pose of injury to human health and the environment. The EPA has until May 9 to respond.
The ongoing environmental nightmare exposed by Florida’s poorly regulated Piney Point gypstack is a sobering reminder of the challenge previous administrations have left at the feet of the Biden administration.
Without question the challenge of updating and improving oversight of the nation’s aging toxic storage sites is enormous.
We have no choice but to aggressively work to reverse the historically poor regulation of dangerous sites that continue to pose unchecked threats to the environment and the communities that have been saddled with waking up every day in the dark shadow of those threats.
Jaclyn Lopez is the Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.