Mosaic Fertilizer’s Russell Schweiss, vice president for Mine Permitting, Land Management and Public Affairs, presented his firm’s side of the phosphate mining debate in the Arcadian over two weeks in January. This is a rebuttal column and the opinions/facts stated are the writer’s. The sentences in quotations are the Arcadian’s posed to Mr. Schweiss and are pulled from the articles.
“There are upsides to what phosphate offers, right?”
Phosphate mining has irrevocably altered entire landscapes over almost 700 square miles of west-central Florida, with another 100 square miles in Mosaic’s pipeline. It’s land that will never revert to native habitat for the astonishing diversity of wildlife that graces our state, and will not support the multi-generational jobs in agriculture that have sustained this state’s economy for two centuries. It would cost too much money to restore the land to what it was before Mosaic’s flamethrowers burned the land to scorched earth—more than was made mining it. Phosphate mining is only profitable because the residents of Florida believe Mosaic’s sugar-coated promises.
The towns and farmland that have been mined out produce nothing. Fort Meade has shrunk (suburbanstats 2018), not grown, as (Russell) Schweiss suggests (U.S. census 2010). These post-mining economies are hollow and unsustainable. None of the mined-out land is being sold for homes any longer. Mosaic is holding its properties after reclamation indefinitely, it would seem, because the land is not safe for humans to live on. Radiation levels on reclaimed land are TENORM—technologically enhanced naturally-occurring radioactive material. Radiation is concentrated by processing, and brought to the surface during mining and reclamation. Even cattle have to be periodically rotated off because of health concerns.
“Being a responsible neighbor is important to our company.”
How much of the money torn out of our ground actually benefits the people of these counties? The profits — $300,000-$500,000 per acre — leave Florida and go to shareholders all over the world. Economic development has ground to a virtual halt in Polk and Hardee counties, as it surely will in DeSoto, if mines are permitted. Okay, a few employees are directed to coach softball teams and volunteer at local food banks, but more and more people are asking, “Where is the benefit? Nobody is doing well here.” And when the mining is done, the volunteers disappear.
“Health of Rivers and Aquifers is an issue…”
Elected officials’ first priority is public health and safety. Mosaic claims “safe and reliable operations,” but the history of phosphate mining and processing tells a much different story.
Since records have been kept, spills, breaches and gypstack sinkholes have sent lethal substances flooding down Florida’s streams and into the aquifers we depend on for drinking water. Mosaic’s attitude about “safe operations” is that the times when everything’s working are the norm, and accidents are just “anomalies.” That is not good enough. That is self-dealing magic thinking, and the people of DeSoto County need to be clear-headed about risk.
1. Mosaic’s fertilizer plants produce 5 million pounds of EPA-listed toxic waste per year. According to its own website, Mosaic dedicates 10 percent of its water use permits, some 7 million gallons per day, to a practice called “blending,” which dilutes the toxic waste until it meets the bare-bones state standards for drinking water quality, and releases it into the environment where we all live.
2. The process of separating phosphate rock from the sand and clay it is attached to is done in pools of “reagent” fluid, which contains huge quantities of waste fuel oils, and other hazardous materials that Mosaic refuses to divulge. Billions of gallons of spent reagents are stored forever in clay settling areas (CSAs), creating billions of gallons of hazardous waste in earthwork berms that will loom sixty feet high, threatening the Horse Creek and Peace River.
3. Mosaic has misinformed the people of DeSoto County about the effects of dust and noise from mining. Personal communications and the photographic record present compelling evidence to the contrary.
4. There is no comfort in the fact that Mosaic will not build gypstacks in DeSoto. Manatee’s and probably DeSoto’s waste phosphogypsum will go up onto the New Wales gypstack — the very one where a sinkhole opened up in 2016 and dumped over 215 million gallons of radioactive, acidic process fluid into the Floridan Aquifer, along with unknown quantities of the phosphogypsum itself. Florida’s water, both above and below ground, flows from north to south. Toxic substances from mining in DeSoto and Manatee counties may find their way back to DeSoto underground, into our wells and streams.
5. At this writing, Mosaic employees and DEQ officials in St. James Parish, Louisiana, are fighting around the clock to prevent a catastrophic full-scale breach at the Uncle Sam gypstack, a 200-foot-tall monster on the verge of collapse.
6. Two weeks ago, a dam owned by Mosaic’s Brazilian subsidiary, VALE, S.A., burst in the village of Brumadinho, leaving over 200 people missing, presumed dead. Three years earlier, another VALE dam burst, killing 19.
“What is phosphate’s role in the world?”
All of Mosaic’s sincere assurances and professionalism are lipstick on a pig. They bely the realities of an industry that claims to be feeding the world, but is in fact an anachronism, a glossed-over modern-day version of old practices that are still, at their core, a threat to the land and its people, from mining and processing to application on fields that have been turned to deserts by outdated factory-farming practices.
Twenty-five percent of the world’s land in production is being farmed in either traditional or regenerative agriculture, and that land produces more than 60 percent of the world’s food without chemical fertilizers. Farmers feed the world. Mosaic is on the wrong side of history.
Andy Mele is with Suncoast Waterkeeper in Sarasota, part of the worldwide Waterkeeper Alliance. Its president is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.