Sept. 24, 2034 — In the aftermath of unprecedented rainfall from Hurricane Omikron, the sixth tropical weather system to strike Florida this year, two phosphogypsum stack dams failed last night at the 18,000-acre Horse Creek Prospect phosphate mine in DeSoto County. The failures resulted in an estimated 100 million gallons of acidic wastewater escaping to Horse Creek.
“We are just as heartbroken as the rest of you,” said mining company spokesman Donald Menteur. “We live in the affected communities as well. But it’s important to remember that, although we work hard to maintain the integrity of our infrastructure, unforeseeable acts of God like this can’t be planned for.”
Over two days, the storm dumped as much as 30 inches of water on parts of central and south Florida. Rivers are rising all over the peninsula, with most not expected to crest for another 24 to 36 hours. The Peace River is expected to rise to 19 feet at Arcadia, nearly matching the 19.6-foot record set after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Horse Creek flows into the Peace River, which is the main tributary of Charlotte Harbor. State and local officials have warned that the consequences of the spill are likely to be devastating, not only to the natural environment but also to regional drinking water supplies.
“Our primary concern is the safety of our customers,” said Peace River Water Treatment Facility spokeswoman Annabelle Johnson. “As soon as we heard about the spill, we shifted 100 percent of our production to water from river flow to our reservoirs, which are not contaminated by river water.”
The facility, which is located less than three miles downstream of where Horse Creek empties into the river, provides nearly 50 million gallons of potable water daily to about 1.3 million customers in DeSoto, Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties and has 6.5 billion gallons of reservoir capacity, plus another 6 billion gallons stored in underground wells.
But the plant still draws water from the Peace River, both to meet daily demand and to fill those reservoirs.
“With about eight months’ worth of water in reserve, we’re currently able to meet demand,” said Johnson. “However, we would appreciate any efforts that people can make to minimize usage. We don’t yet know when the waters of the Peace River will be suitable for use.”
Aquatic life in the river and Harbor will have no other option, however. It’s still too early to tell what the consequences will be, but Robert Lugiewicz, president of Charlotte Harbor Waterkeeper, expects they will be dire.
“I don’t know whether anything in Horse Creek or the river [below the mouth of Horse Creek] can survive at this point,” he said. “And we have no way to know how far down Charlotte Harbor this wall of death will keep killing. We just haven’t seen anything like this since the Alafia River spill.”
In that 1997 incident, a similar dam break released 56 million gallons of acidic wastewater into central Florida’s Alafia River, virtually sterilizing 42 miles of the river between Mulberry and Hillsborough Bay. The spill also left an estimated 350 tons of nitrogen in Tampa Bay, setting pollution-reduction efforts back by years.
“We had just been starting to see some results from our efforts in creating oyster reefs in the Harbor, which is a program the state has been funding since that massive red tide bloom we had in 2022,” said Lugiewicz. “Oysters are very sensitive to this kind of pollution, so I don’t know if we’ll have any survivors.”
Asked about the possible impacts on other species in the Harbor and nearshore Gulf, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner and former Charlotte County Sea Grant agent Betty Staugler said she couldn’t speculate — but she did have a prediction.
“I can tell you this much,” she said. “This is going to be really bad. And it’s not going back to normal for a long time.”
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Hopefully this fictional news story from the future remains just that: Fiction. But don’t forget that Mosaic owns a whole lot of land in DeSoto County — land that they intend to strip-mine for phosphate. Don’t get so distracted with today’s concerns that you forget tomorrow is coming.
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.