As environmental regulators and politicians nervously saluted efforts to prevent the catastrophic release of millions of gallons of wastewater from the aging Piney Point phosphogypsum wastewater storage pond near Tampa, Fla., this week, there was scarce little talk of how we got here.
Or of how we’ll prevent similar disasters moving forward.
Much like the country’s toxic coal ash dumps and pollution-spewing oil and gas wells, the dozens of phosphogypsum stacks across Florida and beyond highlight regulatory failures and chronic injustices that pose catastrophic environmental harms and place disproportionate health and safety risks on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and low-wealth communities.
And in the case of many of Florida’s 25 phosphogypsum stacks, those glaring risks have steadily mounted as state and federal officials ignored signs of troubling failures at outdated facilities plagued by aging infrastructure and lax oversight.
Phosphogypsum waste is created during the process of making phosphoric acid, which is widely used in fertilizers. The toxic, radioactive waste is stored in more than 70 of the mountainous waste piles called “phosphogypsum stacks” in communities in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
The gypstacks can contain significant amounts of sulfur, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead and zinc. They also contain radium-226 which has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life.
But with mines and processing facilities that manufacture nearly two-thirds of the phosphate fertilizer produced in the U.S., Florida has always stood at the very epicenter of the escalating risks posed by the industry.
And the potentially catastrophic leaks at Piney Point are only the latest in a series of examples of problems at Florida phosphogypsum stacks.
In 2016 a sinkhole in the New Wales gypstack in Florida released 215 million gallons of process wastewater into the Floridan aquifer that provides drinking water for 10 million people.
The Hill, 7 April 2021