MULBERRY — About 100 people from five counties near Mosaic phosphate mining and fertilizer operations showed up at an open house Monday for a final chance to ask questions from state regulators and company representatives.
Many people at the meeting noted hazardous waste has spilled into rivers and streams in the hundred plus years of the phosphate industry in Florida. For those who traveled 70 miles to the session from DeSoto and Charlotte counties, there is concern about Mosaic’s runoff into the Peace River. That river is a drinking water source for most of the population in those two counties.
The company needs its water discharge permit for its Bartow facility to be renewed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Without the permit, phosphate production would cease in Bartow, but not in its other locations.
The permit is not for the water that Mosaic uses in processing phosphate, FDEP engineer Amaury Betancourt told the Sun, because Mosaic recycles that water rather than discharging it. The permit applies to stormwater runoff mostly, he said. It also applies to Mosaic’s management of areas polluted by previous owners of the site.
Some of the people attending the open house came to persuade state regulators that it’s not possible to control the pollutants associated with the industry, and wanted the permit denied.
The new permit FDEP has designed requires more of Mosaic than the current permit, Betancourt said. Specifically, Mosaic would have to monitor the health of streams and wetlands beyond its operations to ensure that plant and animal life are functioning normally. At present, Mosaic is mainly required to meet federal and state limits of known pollutants, including cancer causing elements such as arsenic, or low level radioactivity associated with phosphate processing.
“This is a much more expensive and involved process,” Betancourt said of the new proposed permit.
FDEP can deny a permit, which is what the Center for Biological Diversity wants it to do.
“Given their track record, it’s hard to trust this industry.” said Center lawyer Rachael Curran told the Sun at the open house.
Not everyone was happy with the answers they got in the open house.
“They’re all lying,” said Paula Block, who came with her husband and son from Arcadia. They live a few hundred feet from where Mosaic tried and failed last year to get new zoning to allow mining in DeSoto County. Mosaic can return with its rezoning request in 2023.
Block said she was asking detailed questions about testing protocols. She said she either got ignored, or contradictory answers.
“I don’t want to talk to them,” said Block’s son Jeremy, who recorded all the encounters on his cellphone with a selfie stick. “I just don’t feel anything they’re going to tell me is truthful.”
Reasons for distrust run deep. Some people living near operations told the Sun that they blame their illnesses on contaminants from phosphate processing. The most recent scare was in 2016 when, a few miles away in New Wales, millions of gallons of waste water in a gypstack disappeared into the underground aquifer through a sinkhole. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirms that waste material in phosphate industry gypstacks contain low levels of radiation. There was a multiple day delay in Mosaic’s reporting of the 2016 disaster to the public. New rules now require immediate public notification. Mosaic and FDEP assert the water was contained before it had a chance to spread. New rules also require liners on gypstacks.
Anti-Mosaic protester Tim Ritchie of Punta Gorda came armed with data from Mosaic’s 336-page application. Why are the alpha particle rates high in this well and also in that well, Ritchie asked Betancourt? Alpha particles are a low level type of radiation.
Betancourt looked at the data and told Ritchie that one of the wells that tested high was contaminated by a breech at the Bartow facility in the 1990s. Mosaic is charged with monitoring and containing the ground water that was polluted under a previous owner. As for the other well? FDEP is studying those monitoring results, Betancourt said, which they suspect are affected by the 1990s well, but could also be a natural “hot spot” that occur in this part of Florida.
In general, FDEP Manager John Coates said, historic pollutants in the test wells are contained by underground walls installed to prevent migration of contamination. For added assurances, Coates said, the state and Mosaic conduct what he called geologic subsurface evaluation to make sure the polluted water does not migrate.
Some people were satisfied with the answers they got.
“I don’t think anybody’s lying,” said Harold Roebuck, who came up from Punta Gorda where he lives along the water. He wanted to know more about what FDEP does when they find a violation of a water discharge permit.
FDEP’s answer is, “We would require corrective action to groundwater and discharge,” Coates said.
Once FDEP makes its decision, it will publish the result. The public will have 14 days to challenge the decision.
Before making their decision, Coates promised, “We will absolutely be reviewing every comment we get.”