BARTOW — It’s flowing at 80 gallons a minute — a leak of industrial waste water that has sprung from a phosphogypstack at fertilizer producer Mosaic Company’s plant in Bartow.
Mosaic told the Sun Friday that the leak has been contained since it was first spotted on Oct. 23. The technical term is “seepage.”
No contaminated or “process water” has been found outside the plant, according to testing done by Mosaic.
Mosaic met with Polk County commissioners Friday to update them on the situation. Commissioners were first notified by Mosaic on Nov. 8, said Callie Neslund, spokesperson for Mosaic.
“It’s a pretty static situation,” Neslund told the Sun, after that meeting.
Here’s what the situation does not involve, according to Mosaic.
“It’s not indicative of a crack. It’s not a sinkhole. It’s not a structural failure of the stack itself,” Neslund said.
It’s also not technically a pollution event, she added, in terms of having to notify the public. That’s because they assert it has not reached surface or drinking water.
“There’s no threat to public health,” Neslund said.
They knew they had a problem in October, however, when a field inspector making regular rounds saw an 18-inch wide pool in a containment swale adjacent to the towering gypstack that holds 164 million gallons of waste water. State regulators from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were on site that day in October, according to Mosaic.
The time lag between identifying the leak and the public meeting Friday is 3 1/2 weeks — similar to the delay in reporting a leak through a sinkhole in 2016 in nearby Mulberry, when 215 million gallons disappeared under a gypstack there. Gov. Rick Scott initiated stricter reporting requirements after that incident, where the damage took two years to repair.
This case is not the same, according to Neslund, because the leaking water never left the plant site and lined containment areas.
Reached for comment, Polk County Commissioner Rick Wilson said he is entirely satisfied with Mosaic’s response and is not losing sleep at night.
“I feel good about what they’re doing,” he said.
Wilson’s family has owned a company that built some of the phosphate processing structures on site from before Mosaic was formed by a merger in 2004. Mosaic has improved handling from the old days, Wilson said.
Of this current leak, he said, “It wasn’t nothing that scared me ... I knew they had it under control. ... It never was a threat, never will be a threat. Not a big story,” he told the Sun.
The problem for Mosaic, however, is that as of Friday, no one knows the source of the leak. It continues to leak, and Mosaic has set up pumps to send the flowing water back into other containment areas.
“We don’t know how deep it goes, because we’re investigating the source of where the water is coming from,” Neslund said. “It’s unclear whether or not the liner damage could be in the gypstack itself or in one of the associated cooling ponds.”
One Punta Gorda resident, Tim Ritchie, has been monitoring that gypstack in Bartow.
“That thing is in terrible condition, and they know it,” said Ritchie, who is president of March Against Mosaic.
Opposition to Mosaic from residents in Charlotte and DeSoto counties is in part because Mosaic mining and processing are adjacent to the Peace River and tributaries. The Peace River is the primary drinking water source for the two counties.
The stack suspected of having this leak has been around since before liners were required, Neslund said. In 1994, pre-merger owners built a slurry wall around the existing structure. Between 2001 -2009, a liner was added on top of the old structure. These liners are about .06 inches thick, she said. Today, the pond on top is 55 acres of crusty liquid that Mosaic reuses in its processing, Neslund said.
Ritchie and others in the watershed of Mosaic filed objections to Mosaic in its pursuit of a new water discharge permit in Bartow. Mosaic is awaiting a ruling from DEP on the Bartow permit. Without a renewed permit, Mosaic could not operate.
DEP staff was on-site later the same day (on Oct. 23) to investigate the reported seepage at Mosaic’s Bartow facility, and have visited four times to perform inspections, get updates, and to observe and oversee Mosaic’s progress investigating and determining the source of the leak. The most recent visit was Nov. 12.
DEP said in a statement that that cause of the “seepage” isn’t known but that “at this time, inspections and data submitted indicate that the seepage is contained onsite and has not impacted water resources. There are NO signs of any failure of the geology underlying the gypstack system.”
No permit would make some people happy. Phosphate processing is water intensive and creates waste that is acidic and also contains low level radioactive isotopes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mosaic has many monitoring wells throughout southwest Florida where it reports on historic as well as current waste sites. Reporting includes readings on sodium, arsenic and the radioactive waste called alpha particles.
Of the current leak, Neslund told the Sun that she is not aware of any similar situations at Mosaic’s gypstacks. There have been previous cracks spotted in the liners, Neslund said, but those are cracks spotted above the water where exposure to the sun and elements is the likely cause. Those are quickly repaired.
The stack in question is in the southwest corner of Mosaic’s plant in Bartow, and is in current use by the company.
In attempting to locate the leak, Mosaic has so far been excavating areas within the lined stack and adjacent ponds, Neslund said. It can only excavate so deep, however, to avoid damaging the rigid plastic liners.
The next strategy will be to use dye tracers, she said, hoping to locate the origination of the leak.
“We’re moving with urgency,” said Neslund. “Once we identify the source, we can develop the corrective action.”