One of the largest fertilizer manufacturing plants in the world sits about six miles southwest of the Polk County hamlet of Mulberry, with its entrance in walking distance of the Hillsborough County line. About 800 employees work there, turning phosphate rock into nearly 4 million tons of fertilizer and animal food ingredients every year.

They also produce a lot of waste. That’s not unusual for the phosphate industry.

Drive through much of the Florida peninsula and the land you see is flat—flat as a pancake, flat as a billiard table, flat as a contestant on The Voice who’s about to get the boot. But at the Mulberry plant, and everywhere else the phosphate industry operates, you’ll see mountains. These are massive piles of waste materials called phosphogypsum that are left over from the fertilizer manufacturing process. They rise up to 200 feet high and cover some 400 acres. On top of each one is a pond of acidic water from 40 to 80 acres in size.

Many of those mountains belong to the same company that owns the Mulberry fertilizer plant, Mosaic. It’s the biggest phosphate company in the world and a major presence in Florida. Mosaic is currently mining phosphate rock on more than 70,000 of the 380,000 acres it owns in Manatee, Hillsborough, Polk and Hardee counties. Meanwhile, despite vocal public opposition, it recently won local government approval to expand its mining in Manatee County by more than 3,000 additional acres just a short drive from Sarasota County’s northern boundary—and from the source of its water supply.

Mosaic’s phosphate mines and fertilizer factories must store their waste this way because there is no other way to get rid of it safely. The phosphogypsum is mildly radioactive, enough so that it exceeds a level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed safe for humans. The industry has proposed using its waste for everything from wallboard to road-building material. But the EPA, since 1992, has repeatedly said no. So the only solution is to stack it.

About 25 stacks now dot the Florida landscape, and every year the waste must be piled up higher. In 2014, Mosaic asked Polk County officials for permission to make one of its Mulberry gyp stacks twice as wide and nearly 400 feet tall—taller than the highest natural point in Florida, which is 345 feet above sea level.

Most Floridians never see the stacks because they exist so far from the beaches and theme parks. If they know the name Mosaic at all, they know it from its television advertisements, the ones in which the company vows “to always take our commitment to the environment seriously” and touts its work “to keep the natural beauty of Florida...Florida.” Or they know it as a supporter of county fairs, local parks and museums, owner of a bird sanctuary, sponsor of Audubon programs, even for providing financing for a documentary about connecting Florida’s natural areas into one long wildlife corridor. In Sarasota County, for instance, it is a financial backer of the Mote Marine Laboratory’s fish hatchery, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ children’s rainforest exhibit and the county fair. Such endeavors burnish Mosaic’s image as a responsible—even desirable—corporate citizen.

Mosaic contends the stacks are safe because the company “complies with the standards for waste handling and disposal” set by the EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection. In fact, the company says, “Mosaic is one of the most highly regulated companies in the state of Florida.”

But from time to time, a problem crops up at one of the gyp stacks. Then the pond pooled on top spills out and threatens to poison a creek, a bay, or drinking water for miles around. The phosphate industry’s benign image cracks apart.

For instance, in 2004, Hurricane Frances became the second of four hurricanes to slam into Florida in a six-week period. When its winds whipped across Hillsborough County, big waves churned up on the pond atop a 180-foot-tall gypsum stack at a phosphate plant in Riverview. The waves bashed a big hole in the dike around the pond, sending 65 million gallons of polluted water cascading down the stack’s side into a stormwater ditch around its 400-acre base and, ultimately, into Archie Creek, which flows into Hillsborough Bay. It killed fish and drove away other marine life.

So while phosphate provides plenty of paying jobs, boosts America’s crop yields and fill the campaign coffers of numerous Florida politicians, it’s also seeded Florida with the environmental equivalent of ticking time bombs.

In August, at the Mulberry plant, one of those bombs went off.

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The first sign something had gone wrong happened on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 27. Workers checked the water level in a 78-acre pond of polluted water sitting atop its 190-foot gyp stack and discovered it had dropped by more than a foot.

They decided it was just the wind blowing the water around. But around 11 a.m. Sunday, they checked again and realized the level had now dropped three feet.

What was sucking down all that contaminated water? A sinkhole 45 feet wide and 220 feet deep had opened up beneath the stack. Down went 215 million gallons of contaminated water, gurgling into the aquifer that supplies the region’s drinking water.

Yet as the water drained down the hole, Mosaic employees, their consultants from Ardaman & Associates and state DEP inspectors all avoided saying the s-word. For 10 days they called it an “anomaly,” or “a water loss incident.”

Geologists say it should have been obvious right from the start what was happening. But not until the pond had drained out completely and everyone could see the fissure did they finally call it what it was.

A big reason geologists say it should have been obvious is history. One of the biggest Florida sinkholes ever recorded opened in 1994 at the very same facility where the Aug. 28 sinkhole opened. At 160 feet wide and 200 feet deep, it was so big wags dubbed it the new Disney ride, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Like the 2016 sinkhole, it also sucked the pond from a gyp stack like water draining out of a bathtub. It happened just 1¼ miles from the new sinkhole.

Even after Mosaic and the DEP acknowledged that this new pond-draining event was a sinkhole, no one told the public what had happened. Florida law says neither the state nor the company involved has to notify anyone else about pollution spills until there’s some sign the pollution has migrated outside the property where it went into the aquifer. (As of the end of December, more than 1,000 tests of water from wells around Mosaic’s plant by a Mosaic contractor and by the DEP have not found any evidence it migrated into anyone’s drinking supply.)

Neither Mosaic nor the government said a word about what was happening until Sept. 15, when a reporter for WFLA-Ch. 8 called Mosaic and the DEP to ask about rumors regarding the sinkhole. Only then did Mosaic make it public. On Sept. 20, the company apologized for keeping quiet.

“We deeply regret we didn’t come forward sooner,” Walt Precourt, senior vice president of phosphate for the company, told the Polk County Commission. “Any explanation about why we didn’t would ring hollow.”

Initially, Gov. Rick Scott—whom the DEP did not notify about the sinkhole until after it hit the news—defended the agency’s silence. A week later, he reversed himself and called for a new approach. From now on, he said, he wanted any company or local government that spills a pollutant to notify the public about it, no matter where it ends up. Scott has vowed to push the 2017 Legislature to change the law to make that a requirement.

“It’s based on my experience in business,” Scott explained to reporters. “When something like this happens you say to yourself afterward, what can we do better?”

Yet the history of phosphate in Florida has largely been a story of doing the same destructive thing over and over.

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Phosphate has been a part of Florida’s economy for more than a century. First discovered in the Peace River by a Corps of Engineers captain in 1881, Florida’s phosphate deposits today form the basis of an $85-billion industry that supplies three-fourths of the phosphate used in the United States.

To get at the underground deposits, the miners use a dragline with a bucket the size of a truck. It scoops up the top 30 feet of earth and dumps it to the side of the mine pit. Then the dragline scoops out the underlying section of earth, which contains phosphate rocks mixed with clay and sand. The bucket dumps this into a pit where high-pressure water guns create a slurry that can then be pumped to a plant up to 10 miles away.

At the plant, the phosphate is separated from the sand and clay. The clay slurry is pumped to a settling pond, and the phosphate is sent to a chemical processing plant where it is processed for use in fertilizer and other products. The sand is sent back to the mine site to fill in the hole after all the phosphate is dug out—years after the mining began.

When phosphate miners destroy a wetland, they promise to replace it a few decades later when they’re finished—a seemingly impossible task.

“You’re really talking about creating wetlands after 60 to 80 feet of earth have been souffléed,” Florida wetlands expert Kevin Erwin said in 2005.

The odds against success are higher than any gyp stack. Forty percent of the land that’s left behind after mining is covered by the clay-slurry settling ponds. Within five years a crust forms on top of the ponds, but the stuff under the crust remains about as soft as a bowl of chocolate pudding. That means the old clay settling areas are too unstable for building. Meanwhile the sand-filled pits drain too fast to hold water—a serious problem for any would-be wetland.

The industry’s track record for making up for wetlands damage isn’t pretty. In 2002, in preparation for a lawsuit in which he was listed as an expert witness, Erwin toured several new wetlands built by IMC-Agrico. Erwin found that virtually all the wetlands the company built were deep marshes, with standing water two to four feet deep, instead of the thousands of acres of pine flatwoods that had once existed there.

Erwin said he asked his IMC tour guides to show him how the company had recreated a wet prairie. That particular type of environment is extremely difficult to rebuild, he said, but the site the mining officials showed him surprised him. The vegetation looked perfect, as if it had been growing there for decades. But then Erwin looked a little closer and discovered that this wet prairie had no roots.

“What they’d done is gone out in a wet prairie before it was mined and used a sod cutter,” Erwin said. They sliced a swath of vegetation, rolled it up, and then when they were ready unrolled it like a section of carpet, he said.

But the miners forgot something important. “I took some borings and the water table was several feet below the surface,” Erwin said. Since wetlands need water flowing through them to survive, this manmade wet prairie was unlikely to last long.

Destruction of wetlands is a major reason why, in December, four environmental groups—the Center for Biological Diversity, ManaSota-88, People for Protecting Peace River and Suncoast Waterkeeper—filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over their review of the impact of phosphate mining on 50,000 acres.

The mining approvals had been based on a 2013study published by the Army Corps that said creating those mines will destroy nearly 10,000 acres of wetlands and 50 miles of streams, causing a “significant” impact.

But the study—prepared for the Army Corps by a consultant paid by the phosphate industry—contended miners would do such a good job of making up for the damage that eventually the damage wouldn’t be noticeable at all.

“Without mitigation, a lot of the effects would be significant—on wetlands, on groundwater, on surface water,” Corps senior project manager John Fellows said when the study was released. “No question about it, mining is an impactive industry.” 

The phosphate industry produces a lot more waste than just the stuff in the gyp stacks. In 2012, the Southwest Florida Water Management District granted Mosaic a permit to pump up to 70 million gallons of water a day from more than 250 wells in Hillsborough, Manatee, Polk, Hardee and DeSoto counties, an area that since 1992 has been under tight restrictions for any new residential and commercial water use. Some of those millions of gallons—no one can say how much—is used to dilute Mosaic’s polluted waste so it can be dumped into creeks without violating state regulations.

Without that freshwater to dilute it, what Mosaic is discharging would violate the state limits on a type of pollution called “conductivity,” a term that refers to the solids that are left in the waste after it’s processed.

In other words, dilution is the solution to their pollution.

The issue of how much water Mosaic pumps out of the ground was explored by a 2013 environmental impact study on phosphate mining commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps’ report found that the miners’ water use in some areas could lower the aquifer by up to 10 feet. However, it contended the aquifer would eventually recover—once the mining ended and the pumping stopped.

That approach to pollution control is completely legal under Florida law. But something else Mosaic was doing with its waste was not.

In 2003, the Piney Point phosphate plant, near the southern end of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, leaked some waste from atop its gyp stack into the edge of Tampa Bay after its owners walked away. That prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to launch a national review of phosphate mining facilities.

As a result, in 2007, the EPA took Mosaic to court, accusing the company of improper storage and disposal of waste from the production of phosphoric and sulfuric acids at its Florida facilities in Bartow, New Wales, Mulberry, Riverview, South Pierce and Green Bay, as well as two sites in Louisiana. The EPA said it had discovered the company’s employees were mixing highly corrosive substances from its fertilizer operations with the solid waste and wastewater from mineral processing, in violation of federal and state hazardous waste laws.

In 2015, Mosaic agreed to settle the case. The EPA, in a news release, said the 60 billion pounds of hazardous waste addressed in this case “is the largest amount ever covered by a federal or state . . . settlement and will ensure that wastewater at Mosaic’s facilities is properly managed and does not pose a threat to groundwater resources,”

Mixing the waste was something everyone in the industry did, according to Richard Ghent of Mosaic’s Florida operations. The EPA said that violated both state and federal law and put groundwater at risk. It had previously won settlements from two other companies, one of which, CF Industries, has since been taken over by Mosaic.

To settle the case, Mosaic agreed to invest at least $170 million at its fertilizer manufacturing facilities to keep those substances separate going forward. Mosaic also agreed put money aside for the safe future closure of the gypsum stacks and created a $630 million trust for that purpose. That money will be invested until it reaches $1.8 billion, which will pay for the closures.

What remains unknown is how many more gyp stack bombs will explode between now and then—and what the industry will do with its waste once the gyp stacks are shut down.

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An aerial view of the Mulberry plant.

Dennis Mader grew up in Bone Valley, the area of Polk County where nearly all of the state’s phosphate industry was located until a few years ago. It got that name because the phosphate miners sometimes dug up prehistoric fossils along with the ore.

Mader remembers how dusty the air was all the time, and how the water often tasted “like kerosene and mud.” He and his buddies would camp out at the mines sometimes, back before security gates kept the public out.

“It was like No Man’s Land,” he recalled.

These days Mader, now a Hardee County resident, is president of 3PR, an environmental group promoting the protection of the Peace River, and a diehard opponent of allowing phosphate mining to expand its footprint. As the Polk mines played out, Mosaic’s predecessors began laying the groundwork for a move south into Manatee, DeSoto and Hardee counties, opening new mines and expanding old ones. Meanwhile Mosaic is trying to figure out how to make money off the old mining sites—for instance, it has turned one near Bartow into the Streamsong Resort.

Mader’s biggest argument against the expanded mining is the most obvious. “They have proven they can’t handle their waste stream,” he says.

In 1997, amid heavy rains, a dam broke atop one of two gypsum stacks at the Mulberry Phosphates plant on State Road 60, unleashing a 56-million gallon spill of the acidic wastewater into the Alafia River. The pollution killed everything in its path for 42 miles, eventually rolling into Hillsborough Bay. The death toll included more than 1 million baitfish and shellfish and 72,900 gamefish near the river’s mouth, 377 acres of damaged trees and other vegetation along the riverbank, and an unknown number of alligators. When state officials hit the company with a multimillion-dollar fine for the damage done, it declared bankruptcy and shut down. (Its insurance company wound up footing the bill.) Ten years later, local and state officials were still working on restoration projects. Meanwhile the old gyp stack was taken over by a larger company—Mosaic—with plans to close it permanently.

Florida’s leading industry is tourism. Nearly 100 million tourists visit the state every year. They show up because Florida’s air and beaches are clean and free of pollution. One catastrophic gyp stack leak like the one that happened in 1997 can lay waste to an entire estuary, creating fishkills and other impacts that can drive the tourists away for years. To Mader, the two industries—tourism and phosphate—are like trains running straight toward each other on the same track.

“It’s this head-on collision,” he says, “between this industry and the environment of Florida.”

Craig Pittman is an award-winning journalist for the Tampa Bay Times; he’s also won a number of awards for pieces for Sarasota Magazine. He’s the author of four books, most recently, Oh, Florida: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country.

Feature image by Virginia Hoffman. 

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