Catastrophic Wastewater Release Highlights Need for Federal Action
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Manatee County officials have issued evacuation orders for the area surrounding Florida’s Piney Point in anticipation of the imminent catastrophic collapse of a phosphogypsum stack retention pond holding up to 700 million gallons of wastewater.
It has been reported that 22,000 gallons a minute are being discharged from the holding pond to prevent the release of millions of gallons of wastewater and a failure of the radioactive phosphogypsum stack itself. Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste from processing phosphate ore into phosphoric acid, which is predominantly used in fertilizer.
In response to the unfolding threat, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Manatee County.
“This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than 1 billion tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now. Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production.”
“It looks like this is turning out to be the ‘horror’ chapter of a long, terrible story of phosphate mining in Florida and beyond,” said Justin Bloom, Suncoast Waterkeeper founder and board member. “We hope the contamination is not as bad as we fear, but are preparing for significant damage to Tampa Bay and the communities that rely on this precious resource.”
“This entirely predictable catastrophe is a failure,” said Brooks Armstrong, president of People for Protecting Peace River. “And I’m not referring to the failure of the Piney Point stack’s structural integrity, but of the failure of federal, state and local governments to protect us from the unacceptable harms of the phosphate fertilizer industry.”
“Phosphogypsum stacks are getting bigger and more dangerous by the minute, and Piney Point’s fate could befall them all,” said environmental attorney Rachael Curran. “We need real solutions that start with halting the addition of any phosphogypsum and process water to active stacks so that we can deal with the problem we already have. Underground injection control wells or building radioactive roads out of phosphogypsum are dangerous, unacceptable distractions.”
“It should be a surprise to no one that the phosphogypsum stacks at the former Piney Point phosphate plant are in danger of collapsing and causing a catastrophic environmental and economic disaster,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, Inc. “Florida’s phosphate mining industry is an industry of cradle-to-grave pollution. The cradle is phosphate mining, and the grave is the radioactive phosphogypsum waste dumped into gyp stacks.”
Radium-226, found in phosphogypsum, has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life. In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc.
For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates 5 tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous stacks hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall. More than 1 billion tons of the radioactive waste have already been stored in 25 stacks scattered throughout Florida.
The stacks are perched precariously atop the Floridan aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 10 million people. As phosphate mining expands throughout Florida, more phosphogypsum will be created and added to these failing stacks.
In 2016 a massive sinkhole opened in a different Florida phosphogypsum stack, releasing 215 million gallons of wastewater and waste material into the Floridan aquifer.
In 2019 a phosphogypsum stack in Louisiana started shifting, prompting emergency measures. In 2004 a gypstack at Riverview, Florida breached, spilling millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. Other phosphogypsum stacks have been designated Superfund sites.
Phosphogypsum stacks are also located in Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
In February conservation and public-health groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve federal oversight of the radioactive waste produced by phosphogypsum facilities, including wastewater from phosphoric acid production.
In December 2020 environmental, public health and union groups sued the EPA for approving the use of radioactive phosphogypsum in roads. The groups also petitioned the agency to reconsider its Oct. 20, 2020 approval of that use.
“Dumping the phosphate industry’s pollution into our aquifer and roads is not the solution,” said Lopez. “Floridians deserve better than some foolhardy out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to regulating these dangerous waste products.”
Learn more about phosphogypsum and efforts to protect public health and the environment from its harms.
Jaclyn Lopez, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 490-9190, firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Bloom, Suncoast Waterkeeper, (941) 275-2922, email@example.com
Rachael Curran, People for Protecting Peace River, (954) 483-7130, firstname.lastname@example.org
Glenn Compton, ManaSota-88, Inc., (941) 966-6256, email@example.com