Florida citizens living near west-central Florida are no strangers to sinkhole formation. Unfortunately, sinkholes forming in west-central Florida are as likely to be related to regional phosphate mining as natural occurrences.
Sinkholes related to phosphate mining in the area have and still do occur by adding a large mass such as a phosphogypsum stack or by removing significant amounts of weight such as in phosphate strip mining.
Historically, the process of making fertilizer is causing sinkholes to form beneath phosphogypsum stacks and strip mined lands. Sinkholes not only occur near phosphate operations, but can occur miles from phosphate mining plants due to over-pumping from local aquifers. The local aquifer is starved for water. In turn, water from other local aquifers now flow to the starved aquifers until the land above the aquifers becomes unstable and sinkholes may occur at any time.
During the process of making fertilizers in the phosphogypsum stack, toxic waste by-products cause sinkholes to develop due to accelerated dissolution by the waste by-products on the karst landscape beneath the "stacks". In other words, the process of making fertilizer dissolves the karst rock landscape much faster than would occur naturally, causing higher probabilities of sinkhole formation.
Sinkholes formed by this very process in the bottom of a "stack" and billions (1) of gallons of toxic waste flowed through the lower part of the "stack" into the sinkhole and severely polluted Florida’s freshwater reserves contained in the karst rock formation under the "stack". The toxic release was found to affect the Floridan aquifer adversely as well, which is the largest aquifer in the state.
The "stack" in this case is over two hundred feet in height and covers more than four hundred acres all of which is filled to the top with toxic waste by-products. The waste by-products are so toxic; the Department of Environmental Protection does not allow the phosphate industry to move the waste by-product off-site.
West-central Florida is home to at least twenty phosphogypsum stacks, and not one "stack" is engineered with any environmental protection in mind. Florida’s local environmental conservation is not a priority for phosphate officials. It is just a matter of time before more stacks accelerate dissolution on the landscape and create even more sinkholes causing more severe environmental impacts to Florida’s freshwater reserves.
Historically, Florida’s elected officials know this as well because state agencies responsible for overseeing the phosphate industry practices report to these same elected officials. One can see the greed involved in the phosphate industry, county officials, and Tallahassee (Capitol) as well. Money seems to be more important to industry officials than human lives and the environment that sustains us all.
At least six "stacks" have already failed causing severe environmental impacts to adjacent lands polluting and killing all flora and fauna in an area called a "dead zone." Dead zones are where all forms of life cease to exist for an extended period based on the amount of toxic waste released. (2) In another "stack" failure almost five-hundred million gallons of toxic sludge was released causing two vehicles driving by the "stack" to be swept away by the torrent of waste by-products.
When the toxic releases occur phosphate officials either try to hide the spills or offer little in the way of mitigating collateral damage by sound engineering practices. Each "stack" that fails creates severe environmental impacts lasting in some cases for years. Florida’s drinking water is continually at risk from phosphogypsum stacks because of Florida’s phosphate industry practices.
If the threat of sinkholes occurring on a daily basis is not enough, the "stacks" holding toxic waste by-products are radioactive as well.
Radioactive elements are naturally occurring far beneath the central Florida landscape. However, the "stacks" produced by the phosphate industry are compacted tightly and contain a far denser source of radioactive materials than would occur naturally. In other words, the amount of radioactive emissions from "stacks" is known to cause several types of cancers including lung cancer and other diseases related to the esophagus and throat.
The greatest threat of by-product radioactive material comes from radium and radon gas. Both of these toxic materials are based on the uranium content being strip mined because radium and radon are in the decay chain of uranium. Radon is in the form of gas, so the wind carries these toxins for miles in some cases.
Florida’s elected officials know phosphate industry practices are costing millions of taxpayer dollars on a daily basis without an end in sight.
1. Peace River Cumulative Impact Assessment - swfwmd.state.fl.us/waterman/peaceriver/.
2. Phosphate Mines. - dep.state.fl.us/water/mines/manpho.htm.