Florida Toxic Pond Leakage Exposes Inadequate Phosphate Mining Waste Disposal Solutions

Florida Toxic Pond Leakage Exposes Inadequate Phosphate Mining Waste Disposal Solutions

The leakage and possible collapse of a pond storing radioactive waste from an old phosphate mining plant in Manatee County, located in the US state of Florida, revealed the lack of proper waste disposal solutions in the phosphate mining industry, US environmental protection experts told Sputnik

MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 06th April, 2021) The leakage and possible collapse of a pond storing radioactive waste from an old phosphate mining plant in Manatee County, located in the US state of Florida, revealed the lack of proper waste disposal solutions in the phosphate mining industry, US environmental protection experts told Sputnik.

Local authorities in Manatee County declared a state of emergency last week, after a breach was detected at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack. As the leakage worsened this week, the Manatee County Public Safety Department issued an evacuation order to relocate residents in over 300 homes to safety.

About two to three million gallons of wastewater continued to flow out of the pond every day and as much as 380 million gallons of wastewater could be unleashed if the pond's walls collapsed eventually, local authorities said.

The fertilizer manufacturing industry relies on phosphate rock mining to extract the mineral phosphorus, which is a key ingredient in fertilizers that can help plants grow strong roots.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), phosphate rock mining is the fifth largest mining industry in the United States in terms of the amount of material mined. The phosphate industry is concentrated in the southeastern United States. About 90 percent of phosphate is mined in Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Phosphate rock mining produces a kind of waste called phosphogypsum, which contains naturally-occurring uranium, thorium and radium and can be more radioactive than the original phosphate rock. To reduce the environmental impact of the radioactive waste, the phosphogypsum is usually disposed of in large piles called stacks, which often look like a pond as the phosphogypsum is watery when it is first put on the stacks.

Environmental advocates in Florida decried the phosphate industry's practices in the state known for its beautiful sceneries and magnificent beaches.

"Phosphogypsum is dumped at various locations throughout Florida in hazardous waste phosphogypsum (gyp) piles, these gyp piles can pollute our groundwater, leach into our rivers and bays, kill and contaminate our marine life, and pollute our air," Glenn Compton, director of ManaSota-88, a Florida-based organization focusing on environmental protection and public health, told Sputnik.

Compton estimates that the phosphate industry has dumped in excess of a billion tons of radioactive waste in Florida and produces more than 46 million tons of phosphogypsum waste annually.

The expert illustrated the environmental impact of phosphogypsum waste in Florida.

"Gyp pile wastewater includes acids, radionuclides, arsenic, and other cancer-causing constituents. Given the hydrogeology of Florida it is obvious present phosphogypsum waste disposal and phosphoric acid production methods should not be permitted here. The extent of the threat to public health in Florida from gyp piles is large," he said.

The phosphate industry has left 25 massive phosphogypsum waste stacks in Florida through decades of operations in the state.

The Piney Point phosphogypsum stack has existed since 2002, when the production facility was shut down when it was owned by the Mulberry Corporation. The Piney Point stack is currently owned by the HRK Holdings, which notified local authorities about the leakage last week.

Compton pointed out that the phosphate companies have not found an adequate way to dispose the radioactive waste they produced.

"Phosphate companies have had over 70 years to figure out a way to dispose of their radioactive waste in an acceptable manner, they have yet to do so," he said.

Other US environmental experts voiced similar concerns over the disposal of the phosphogypsum waste.

"This is an important question that thus far has no solutions. I know the phosphogypsum was thought to be sold as a building material, but because it's radioactive that doesn't work for most structures, and consequently there's not a terrible amount that can be done with it. What to do with the phosphogypsum waste is definitely a million-dollar problem for the phosphate mining industry!" Matthew Pasek, a professor of geosciences at the University of South Florida, told Sputnik.

Before the crisis of the breach at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack emerged last week, Manatee County commissioners voted 6-1 in early March in support of a proposal to build an injection well to dispose the wastewater from the pond. The proposal still needs to be approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

However, Compton from ManaSota-88 argued that building an injection well to dispose the phosphogypsum waste is a very bad idea.

"ManaSota-88 continues to oppose construction of any deep injection well in the vicinity of the former Piney Point Phosphate Plant. Groundwater pollution detection is an inexact science, it is easy to miss a toxic plume. Our knowledge of the health risks of long-term exposure of toxic and radioactive substances in phosphate wastewater is very limited," he said.

The advocate pointed out that the deep injection well could bring risks polluting the underground water in the area.

"Deep well injection is done because liquid wastes that cannot be discharged into surface waters are injected into deep wells. Thus, the worst wastes end up in these wells. If a failure occurs, very little can be done to correct it. If an aquifer is contaminated, it's too late," he said.

Compton illustrated how difficult it is to clean up groundwater if it becomes contaminated.

"Groundwater is one of our most precious natural resources. Contaminated groundwater is extremely difficult, expensive and time-consuming to clean up. It is impossible to pump and treat all the contaminated groundwater in a plume and some of the contaminants will cling to soil particles and remain untreated in any event," he said.

Nevertheless, Professor Pasek suggested that the location of the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack could help reduce the risks of contamination of local drinking water supply in case of its collapse.

"Luckily, since Piney Point is positioned along the coast of Florida, there's not a lot of groundwater entry points where this gyp stack is located, so the impact on drinking water should be minimal. The main drinking water reservoir is pretty far away, and 'upstream'," he said.

Flooding triggered by the collapse of the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack could cause more danger, the expert said.

"The danger this (Piney Point) phosphogypsum stack poses is mainly that it is a large reservoir of water that is higher in elevation than much of its surroundings. The main concern is that, if this leak opens up large enough to reduce the integrity of the wall surrounding the reservoir, the water could rapidly discharge, creating a wall of water five-eight meters [16-26 feet] high at first, and about one meter high over [about] three square kilometers [1.1 square miles] in area," he said.

As part of its efforts to find new solutions to dispose the radioactive waste, the EPA approved a request from the Fertilizer Institute (TFI) to allow phosphogypsum to be used in government road construction projects in October last year.

"The approval of this request means that phosphogypsum, which already requires significant engineering and regulatory controls to be disposed of in stacks, can now be put to productive use rebuilding our nation's infrastructure," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said at the time.

Risk analyses conducted by the Fertilizer Institute, and reviewed by the EPA, demonstrate that the proposed use of phosphogypsum in road construction is as protective of public health, in both the short- and long-term, as is the disposal of phosphogypsum in a stack.

However, Compton from ManaSota-88 warned that using phosphogypsum for construction purposes could risk spreading this radioactive waste to wider areas.

"All uses of phosphogypsum can cause significant health risks. Allowing phosphogypsum to be used for construction or agricultural purposes will put the general public at an unacceptable risk, as the phosphogypsum will become widespread in its distribution. The radioactive decay of this material will emit particles that can cause increased cancer risks and unacceptable radiation levels in areas normally not having such problems," he said.

The advocate called on US government agencies to introduce strict regulations to deal with the environmental threats from the phosphogypsum waste.

"More stringent environmental regulation to control the adverse impacts of phosphogypsum is needed. Allowing for the widespread distribution of phosphogypsum will lead to less oversight of a dangerous waste product," he said.

ManaSota-88, along with other environmental and public health groups, filed a legal petition to the EPA seeking increased Federal oversight of phosphogypsum and process wastewater, Compton added.

If adequate environmental and health rules had been developed concerning phosphogypsum waste disposal, the industry would have found it to their benefit to develop a new method of producing phosphoric acid without dumping their toxic waste throughout Florida and the nation, the expert argued.