OUR POSITION: New safeguards aside, Florida is still under the siege of phosphate mining years after some operations have been shut down.
Mosaic Co. has worked feverishly the past decade to rid itself of the reputation its predecessors saddled all phosphate mining companies with.
It has doubled down on work to reclaim land ripped apart by phosphate mining, hired a cadre of public relations people and sought out the best practices to protect the environment and make sure its mines, gypstacks and processing plants are safe. Mosaic is working now with DeSoto County to move its mining there in the next few years — an operation that has met with strong opposition.
Last week, the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority gave a detailed presentation to the Charlotte County Commission. The Authority touched on how it tests for water quality — focusing much of the discussion on creeks and rivers that could be impacted by phosphate mining.
Its conclusion is, put most simply, that agriculture runoff is as much to blame for any degradation of our water supply as phosphate.
But included in the presentation was one very troubling fact. The Authority found spikes in phosphorus in Whidden Creek, a tributary of the Peace River that runs past Fort Meade. They attribute the problem to a closed gypstack that can seep out potentially harmful runoff during high rain events.
The old phosphate operation near Fort Meade is still owned by U.S. Agri-Chemicals Corp., but has a very interesting history.
USAC, a subsidiary of Sinochem Corp., was owned by the Chinese government. According to a 2005 story in the Lakeland Ledger newspaper, USAC planned to cease operations in Bartow and Fort Meade, agreeing to an early termination deal worth about $84 million with Mosaic, which included stocks, equipment purchases and termination of a phosphate rock purchasing contract.
The gypstacks near Whidden Creek were shut down. Now, only a small staff of about a half-dozen employees stay on to monitor the gypstacks and make required reports to FDEP.
Perhaps that staffing is not adequate to do what must be done to prevent runoff reaching Whidden Creek, and eventually the Peace River where Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota get their drinking water.
The Authority told Charlotte commissioners that the runoff into Whidden Creek is not alarming because there is enough freshwater to dilute it. But, if more gypstacks close and produce runoff during heavy rains — think hurricanes and tropical storms especially — that might not be the case.
Susanne Allen, general manager of the location where the closed gypstacks are being blamed for the problem, said Thursday that it's not so. "Our gypstacks can't (be causing any problems)," she said. "I would like to see that presentation.
We'll leave the disagreement over where the phosphorus is coming from to be hashed out between FDEP, the Authority and Allen. But a gypstack, or two, is overflowing and Whidden Creek is the victim.
So, a decade after mining operations ceased in Fort Meade, the legacy of phosphate mining continues to threaten people's health through their drinking water supply.
It makes you wonder if the state can ever cleanse itself of the impact of phosphate mining. And brings up the question: "Was it worth it?"