Catastrophic Wastewater Release Highlights Need for Federal Action

April 3, 2021

Manatee County officials issued evacuation orders for the area surrounding Florida’s Piney Point in anticipation of the imminent catastrophic collapse of a phosphogypsum stack retention pond holding up to 700 million gallons of wastewater. In response to the unfolding threat, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Manatee County. Luckily it didn’t happen. Residents shouldn’t have to rely on luck.

Experts are now troubled that a massive wave of harmful algal blooms is brewing.

As evacuees returned home, environmental groups warned that neighboring communities that they must prepare for ongoing issues which could include a red tide outbreak, from the unprecedented amount of nutrients being dumped into Florida’s largest estuary.

“Now, it’s that there’s upwards of 500 tons of nitrogen that have been released into the bay,” said Adam Fernandez, a board member with the Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. “That is insane. That’s an insane, biblical amount of nitrogen they released into our bay.”

Manatee County Commissioners voted April 5 to get rid of the wastewater being held at the abandoned facility’s ponds permanently by the use of an injection well to treat the water. Afterwards they would dump it deep into the Floridan Aquifer. April 6th, the Florida Senate approved adding $3 million to the state budget to help with cleanup at the site.

Fernandez said he worries a massive algal bloom will kill off a lot of seagrass, which supports the fisheries, and will create a domino effect throughout the environment.

“If the Red Tide happens it would be devastating. It chokes out all the oxygen in the water killing the seagrass that our fish eat. Fisheries could be seriously impacted. Phosphate industry dumping into our aquifer and roads has to stop. These retention ponds are dangerous,” said Alissa Schafer, Broward County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor. “Floridians deserve strong regulations protecting them from these horrendously dangerous waste products.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is among the groups calling for closing plants that create phosphogypsum, the radioactive waste from processing phosphate. They also have been petitioning for stronger federal oversight at existing facilities.

It has been reported that 22,000 gallons a minute were discharged from the holding pond to prevent the release of millions of gallons of wastewater and a failure of the radioactive phosphogypsum stack itself. Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste from processing phosphate ore into phosphoric acid, which is predominantly used in fertilizer.

“This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than 1 billion tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now. Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production.”

Radium-226, found in phosphogypsum, has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life. In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc.

For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates 5 tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous stacks hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall. More than 1 billion tons of the radioactive waste have already been stored in 25 stacks scattered throughout Florida.

The stacks are perched precariously atop the Floridan aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 10 million people. As phosphate mining expands throughout Florida, more phosphogypsum will be created and added to these failing stacks.

In 2016 a massive sinkhole opened in a different Florida phosphogypsum stack, releasing 215 million gallons of wastewater and waste material into the Floridan aquifer.

In 2019 a phosphogypsum stack in Louisiana started shifting, prompting emergency measures. In 2004 a gypstack at Riverview, Florida breached, spilling millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. Other phosphogypsum stacks have been designated Superfund sites.

Phosphogypsum stacks are also located in Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

In February conservation and public-health groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve federal oversight of the radioactive waste produced by phosphogypsum facilities, including wastewater from phosphoric acid production.

In December 2020 environmental, public health and union groups sued the EPA for approving the use of radioactive phosphogypsum in roads. The groups also petitioned the agency to reconsider its Oct. 20, 2020 approval of that use.