According to Mosaic’s own figures, the smallish 3,600-acre phosphate mine at Wingate East, for which the company is seeking Manatee County permits on Jan. 26, will generate over 40 million tons of waste that is too toxic or hazardous to dispose of anywhere but on the looming, flat-topped mountains of phosphogypsum, or “gypstacks,” that dot the region’s landscape.
According to the EPA, these “gypstacks” comprise the largest repository of toxic and hazardous waste in the nation, and possibly the world. Right here in the Sunshine State.
This material is radioactive with the concentrated natural background radioactivity found in the phosphate ore. Up to 60 times more concentrated than in nature, this very material has been used in decades past by the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Defense to make nuclear weapons.
The good news is that Mosaic does not intend to dispose of it in Manatee County.
The bad news is that it will probably be disposed of at the nearest such active phosphogypsum mountain, in Riverview, Hillsborough County, after processing at Mosaic’s Riverview chemical plant at the mouth of the Alafia River. Thousands of people, mostly poor and minority, live within two miles of that waste disposal site.
While there has never been an epidemiological study made of residents in proximity to the phosphogypsum stacks, residents are beginning to speak out, and their claims, while anecdotal, warrant investigation.
If Manatee County approves Mosaic’s requests for a re-zone and Master Mining Plan at Wingate East, it will be sending 40 million tons of toxic and hazardous waste into communities outside the county over the years the mine is in operation.
How can this be allowed to happen, you may ask? Surely there is some public benefit that offsets the potential for shipping a mountain of disease-causing waste to neighboring communities, contaminating the state’s drinking water, permanently destroying native Florida habitat, and turning the east county into a wasteland? Good question.
The short answer is no. Phosphate mining is a net economic loss to the people of Florida, and a catastrophic loss of the ecological functions embodied in the 800-plus square miles of native habitat, home to many threatened and endangered species, ruined forever during the strip-mining process.
The FDEP rubber stamps virtually every mine permit application that crosses its desk. The counties are dazzled by the pathetic trickle of money that Mosaic invests in flashy showpieces like museums, nature preserves and rodeo arenas, and intimidated by overt threats of Harris Act lawsuits. Health agencies at the state and county levels wash their hands of the problem, rebuffing citizens’ requests for help. EPA has no role in the permitting process.
That leaves the Army Corps of Engineers, which hires temp workers, including high school students, to approve Clean Water Act permits needed by Mosaic to dredge and fill thousands of acres of wetlands. The Corps has made matters worse by issuing an Area-wide Environmental Impact Statement that, through some Mad Hatter’s logic, avoids the wildly polluting chemical fertilizer plants and the radioactive gypstacks, every one a sinkhole waiting to happen, as if there was any point to mining the phosphate rock without turning it into something marketable, and disposing of the inevitable waste.
The systemic failure of our government agencies to protect the environment and human health leaves citizens no recourse but to stand up against phosphate mining for themselves. Please attend the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners hearing on Jan. 26.
Andy Mele has a master’s degree in environmental science and is the author of “Polluting for Pleasure.” He is Suncoast Waterkeeper, part of an international network of local citizens’ groups under the umbrella of the Waterkeeper Alliance. He also chairs the local Sierra Club Group’s Political Action Committee.