Phosphate mining is a major industry in Florida, but it’s also a major source of pollution, responsible for red tide, toxic algal blooms and killing wildlife. In the northern part of the state, residents of a small town are resisting a man who wants to mine phosphate near their homes. Can the local government balance individual rights and with community health concerns? Laura Newberry reports.
In the coming midterm election, environmental issues have played an unusually large role in the state of Florida, in part due to the explosion of two blooms of algae that have crippled part of the state's tourism economy and killed hundreds of thousands of fish and wildlife.
There are many factors driving these blooms, but scientists believe that the mining of phosphorous is one of them. Mining this mineral is a huge business in Florida.
And special correspondent Laura Newberry and producer Alan Toth tell us, the fight over a new mine is sharply dividing one Florida town.
It's the focus of this week's on the Leading Edge of science and technology.
When most people think of Florida, they probably imagine wetlands and beaches, but there's a lot more going on there than most people realize.
Buried in Florida's earth is a mineral so essential to our everyday lives that we'd go hungry without it. Phosphate is an essential nutrient for plant growth. It's ubiquitous in fertilizer. And the only way to extract vast quantities of phosphate is through strip mining.
But to really understand the environmental cost of phosphate mining, you have to get up in the air.
Ed Golly and Andre Mele took me on a flight over the mines, so I could get a sense of the scale of phosphate production.
Laura, all those water forms off to the right, those are all related to the mines.
It's fair to say that the human race is dependent on phosphate to grow enough food. The United States produces 27 million metric tons of phosphate per year, and the majority of that phosphate comes out of Florida.
And here's the fertilizer plant, AKA, the acid plant.
Phosphogypsum stacks, also known as gypstacks, are mountains of waste left over from fertilizer production. Some of that waste is radon and uranium.
The EPA says that it's too radioactive to be buried, so it's piled in these stacks. There are 25 of these things in Florida, and they're some of the highest points in the state.
And here we are at the sinkhole, Laura.
Now, that's the sinkhole.
There's your sinkhole.
In August of 2016, this huge sinkhole opened up on a gypstack in Polk County, and hundreds of millions gallons of wastewater drained right into the aquifer.
The company responsible for this spill is Mosaic, the largest phosphate company in the nation.
A large sinkhole has now opened beneath a gypsum stack at the Mosaic New Wales plant in Mulberry.
Mosaic kept the full extent of the spill a secret for 19 days, and only acknowledged it to the public after local news reported it.
In a statement, the company apologized for not providing information sooner. But, for some, the potential benefits of phosphate mining outweigh the environmental concerns.
Jack Hazen owns Circle H Ranch in North Florida, on the border of Bradford and Union Counties.
Well, I was born here on this property in 1933. My father owned it, and my grandfather owned it before him.
Hazen raises cattle and corn, but he's known for a long time that his land is rich in phosphate. He recently formed a company in order to mine his land and four neighboring properties.
This county and the adjoining county that this phosphate's in is poor counties. And I came to the conclusion that we would work roughly 200 people. That is the only reason I decided to phosphate this land.
Phosphate mining might benefit some workers in this economically depressed area of Florida, but some local activist Jim Tatum says that the environmental cost of a phosphate mine is not worth a few jobs.
I live on the river, and what happens in Bradford and Union County will affect my river, or could affect my river.
Jim Tatum lives next to the Santa Fe River. A small tributary to the Santa Fe divides Bradford and Union counties, and it flows right through the proposed mining area.
I think it was 1997 they had a spill in the north shore of the Alafia River. The spill killed millions of fish, wildlife crabs.
Fifty million gallons of wastewater from a phosphate fertilizer plant spilled into the Alafia River, and it killed almost everything, more than a million fish for 50 miles downstream.
Courtney Snyder, who lives right next to the proposed mining area, is also concerned.
Nobody wants the phosphate mine here.
Well, you have got the dust, the I guess you could call it radioactive dust because of the radon and whatever else is found in the ore. My 4-year-old has asthma, and I'm 100 yards away from the proposed property.
But now we're getting into this dirt road here that cuts through the center of some of the mining property. That's part of the proposed mining property owned by the Pritchett family back there, and on that side there. It's very close to people's homes.
Snyder and several other concerned neighbors are members of a group called Citizens Against Phosphate Mining in Bradford and Union Counties. They hope to convince their county commissioners to deny Hazen's mining permit.
Jack Hazen knows about his neighbors who are protesting the mine, but he says that their concerns are unfounded. He says he plans to ship his phosphate out of the county to be processed into fertilizer, so there will be no gypstacks.
We're not going to contaminate the rivers. We're not going to contaminate anything. I'm telling you, this is a clean operation.
And, of course, these environmentalists, they fight this stuff, but they lose.
Union County commissioners recently passed a one-year moratorium on mining permits, but Bradford County commissioners are still considering the mine.
I heard Mr. Hazen told you not to listen to us because we are activists and outsiders. We live here too.
Building mines next to our residences will make our properties worthless.
Nobody wants it. Your people don't want it. The people that elected you don't want it.
Despite the public outcry, the Bradford County commissioners voted to hire a consultant to advise them on Hazen's mining application.
Motion carries 5-0.
Jim Tatum is still concerned that the Bradford County commission will approve the mine.
Education is the most important thing we can do to tell the people what the threat is. This will destroy Bradford County. It will destroy its attraction as a rural paradise, so to speak.
If they get the permits and they start mining across the street from me, I would probably move.
Jack Hazen is determined to do what he wants with his land.
They can't stop us from mining, because we got property rights. You don't govern what I can do with my land. When we get to where somebody is governing what I can do with my land, we in bad shape in this country.
One thing's for sure. Phosphate mining in Central Florida continues, so those gypstacks are going to get even taller.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Laura Newberry in Starke, Florida.
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