BARTOW – Regional planners heard more than three hours of testimony Monday before they unanimously approved construction of a new phosphate gypsum stack near Fort Meade.
The crowd of more than 200 people was split between stack opponents, who fear water and radiation pollution from the stack, and supporters many of whom rely on the U.S. Agri-Chemicals mine for a living.
The issue now moves to the Polk County Commission for final approval.
“This is the kiss of death for Fort Meade,” said Fort Meade resident John Barnett, who led an anti-stack group. “It’s kind of obvious that this whole thing was cut and dried before it started.”
Barnett, a retired state air pollution investigator, claimed the new stack could pollute the underground aquifer and release large concentrations of wind-blown radon and fluoride gas into the city, only 1 1/2 miles away.
US Agri-Chemicals wants to build a new stack on the south side of County Road 630 at Peeples Road. The 350-acre stack would succeed a nearby 260-acre stack, which is nearing its capacity.
A battery of consultants hired by the company attacked Barnett’s health arguments one by one. One claimed Barnett’s education ended 30 years ago and some of the studies he cited were 20 years old.
Company President Malcolm Scott said the mine would be forced to close if its request for a new stack was rejected.
“There is no trade off of jobs for lives,” he said, addressing concerns about radon gas possibly causing lung cancer. “If the company felt there was any significant safety or health risks, we would not be here today.”
About 50 people wore emblems saying they were members of the International Chemical Workers Union, which represents mine workers. Many wore stickers saying “Phosphate Feeds You,” “I Stack Gypsum” and “Facts Not Fear.”
On the other side were placards proclaiming “1.5 Miles Isn’t Enough” and “Is the $ More Important than Fort Meade Live$.”
Ron Martin of Fort Meade handed council members a petition with about 300 signatures of people opposed to the plan. Several speakers said they didn’t oppose the mine but wanted the stack moved farther from the city.
But Phong Vo, manager of engineering services for US Agri-Chemicals, said moving the stack to a site farther from the mine could increase the risk of a spill from the acidic phosphate slurry being transported through a pipeline.
“The further you have to pump it,” he said, “the greater the risk.”
Gypsum is a chemical byproduct created during the manufacturing of phosphoric acid, used to produce fertilizer from phosphate rock. It contains radium, which decays and creates radon gas.
Among the conditions placed for approval were closing the old stack as soon as possible, lining the bottom of the new stack with a thick plastic liner and limiting it’s height to 158 feet.
Polk County Commissioner Robert Connors was the only member of the Central Florida Regional Planning Council to express any reservations about approving the new stack.
Connors said he was disappointed that the council’s planners did not look hard enough at alternatives, such as how much money it would cost the company if they moved the stack farther from Fort Meade.
Member Richard Mason of Lakeland, president of Florida Concrete and Products Association, moved to approve the stack. He said US Agri-Chemicals answered questions about any health concerns. Eleven of the council’s 18 members attended the meeting.
After the meeting, Barnett vowed to protest what he claimed was unfairness during the meeting to the state Department of Community Affairs. He said consultants for the company were allowed to speak about one hour, while he was limited to about 10 minutes.
Barnett was limited by council members to only new information because he addressed the council during the first half of the hearing on Aug. 3.