***UPDATED DECEMBER 2018***
When I wrote my first draft of this, I was riddled with emotion and ranting through my keyboard. I had a pit in my stomach and tears in my eyes thinking of how my family would be personally affected by mining operations so close to our homes. I possibly used some profanities, but that may be related to the three cups of Cafe Bustelo espresso I'd consumed prior.
It's been a few days. I'm calmer. I've done research (a lot). I've read the outrage on Facebook. And I've revisited this post to inform you of what I've learned about the potential consequences of phosphate mining. For people and the environment.
Supporters of mining consider this a "scare tactic." I've also heard accusations of being against agriculture or farmers. This couldn't be further from the truth. Wanting to prevent mining from potentially harming our families, our homes and our communities, is because we love our families, our homes and our communities. And we will do everything in our power to protect them.
If you are a visual person, here's a 10-minute video that gives you a quick rundown on phosphate mining. Otherwise, read on.
What's Going On? Mosaic To Expand Phosphate Mining Into DeSoto County
The Mosaic Company, the world's largest producer of phosphates, has made plans to expand their mining operations into DeSoto County, covering 18,287 acres, larger than the city of Arcadia itself. The company is proposing that this 28-square mile tract be rezoned for phosphate mining.
Mosaic's website states their intentions as follows:
To meet the continuing world demand for phosphate, we plan to extend existing mines and develop new mines in Hardee, Manatee and DeSoto counties. By extending existing mining operations onto adjoining properties, we can continue producing phosphate in the area without increasing our water consumption by connecting to existing stormwater and water circulation systems.
Extended mines and new mining operations undergo exhaustive planning and approval processes to protect air, water, ecology, transportation, safety and other environmental, health and public welfare considerations. After mining, state-approved reclamation programs will result in productive land uses, including enhanced wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.
Sounds good, in theory. But let's take a deeper look at facts of phosphate mining, past catastrophes and why Mosaic's version of "reclamation" is so far off the mark from what could be considered acceptable restoration.
The Dangers of Phosphate Mining
By nature, Mosaic's operations destroy the environment, not protect it, and endanger the health, livelihood and interests of citizens and homes that span far broader than the mining grounds.
According to Mosaic's DeSoto Project website, mining is limited to 1,000 feet from residences or 200 feet from the mine property line. Most people who live on ranches or pastureland moved there for peace and quiet, but could face a new reality of constant noise, "fugitive" dust, increased traffic and the unsightly view of machines and sky-high radioactive stacks outside their back doors.
THE SINKHOLE AND 250 MILLION GALLONS OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE
The most recent mining catastrophe happened in 2016 when a massive sinkhole opened beneath one of Mosaic's "gypsum stacks" sending contaminated wastewater into one of the state's main underground sources. Two years and 250 million gallons later, the hole is FINALLY closed. Here's a Tampa Bay Times article that covers the disaster.
It's important to understand what a "gypsum stack" is. Phosphogypsum is the waste left behind after the fertilizer production process. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), phosphogypsum emits radon, a radioactive gas, and contains uranium and radium, which are radioactive elements. The EPA requires the "gypsum" to be stored in massive, above-ground stacks (hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet high) because there's no other way to safely dispose of it and they hope this prevents the cancer-causing radon gas from escaping into the environment.
But in cases like the Mulberry sinkhole, these hopes and "safety precautions" aren't bulletproof; accidents happen. And when the worst case scenario is threatening the health of our families and our estuaries, how could anyone willingly welcome these risks??
PHOSPHATE MINING CATASTROPHES: NOT A MATTER OF "IF" BUT WHEN
The mining industry is known for environmental disasters, no matter how much their "exhaustive planning" guarantees safety. You are welcome to read their public 68-page permit that states every minute detail of their plan and "precautions," down to the brand of toilet paper they use. But these words are just dust in the wind. It's not a matter of IF something will go wrong, it's a matter of WHEN, and the phosphate mining industry has the track record to prove it.
Paul DeGaeta, lifetime resident on the Peace River and probably the greatest advocate for the health of the estuary, reminded us all of the 1971 phosphate spill, which he also lived through. A dike burst in Fort Meade spilling two billion gallons of phosphate waste into the Peace River and killing 90% of the fish, according to a biologist of the former Florida Game and Fresh Water Commission. That percentage amounted to 3 million dead fish. You think we have problems now with the lethal Red Tide in Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande?? Let's throw some radioactive fuel on that fire.
In 1997, 50 million gallons of contaminated water from a phosphate plant spilled into the Alafia River near Tampa Bay, killing millions of fish. In 2004, a hurricane flooded a stack of waste carrying 65 million gallons of contaminated phosphate waste into Tampa Bay killing marine life, mangroves and seagrass.
There is no such thing as phosphate mining that "protects air, water, ecology, transportation, safety and other environmental, health and public welfare considerations." Phosphate mining produces poision and when any singular thing goes wrong... the air, water, ecology, environment, health and public welfare will PAY THE PRICE.
THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS THIS COULD HAVE ON OUR WATERWAYS IS UNKNOWN
This Tampa Bay Times article cites that, "studies of waters downstream of phosphate mines have found an increase in heavy metals like lead, and studies of aquifers have found chemicals used to process the phosphate, like fuel oil."
Aquifers feed the underground wells that provide drinking water to nearly every household outside the city limits and every home on agricultural land. If these studies prove true, those responsible are knowingly allowing the possibility of poisioning thousands of citizens.
Horse Creek, the largest Peace River tributary, flows straight through the middle of the proposed DeSoto mining area. Whatever is spilled or leaked or accidentally discharged into Horse Creek flows downstream to the Peace River and the homes of Charlotte County.
Mosaic's "Reclamation" is Unacceptable
Mosaic promises to create "fully functioning post-mining landscapes." Here are a few examples of what mined land looks like prior to the reclamation process:
In Florida, the process pictured above is known as strip-mining. Phosphate rock is extracted about 30-40 feet (or more) below the surface using machines called draglines. The mining company assaults the land for years and, when they are done, they're required to "return it to a usable state again." The problem is: that land can never be truly returned to it's original state.
In the public eye and on the perimeter of mined lands, it might appear as if trees are growing and there's an abundance of green colors, so it must be good and healthy! Wrong.
The land has been mutilated from the inception; ponds drained, native wildlife and plants removed, surface scraped and then the digging begins 40-100 feet into the ground. Years later, the holes are filled in and covered with sand. Clay ponds that store wastewater form a dry, solid crust, but the clay beneath remains forever. The face and heart of the land is scarred beyond repair and the ecosystem that once naturally thrived there has been destroyed, choked out by poisonous chemicals.
Nothing can naturally grow or thrive here; which means wildlife cannot return, natural processes cannot regenerate and the land remains a useless, barren desert for at least the rest of our lives. The intricate functions of an ecosystem are not visible to our naked eyes; just because you stick some plants in the ground and make it look all green, does not mean the land is restored to it's original state.
What Can You Do About It?
Mosaic has been funneling money into DeSoto and Charlotte counties - the $9 million Mosaic Rodeo Arena, the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, local Chamber sponsorships - lining pockets to buy local support and portray themselves as community-first good corporate citizens.
We cannot stand idly by as our families, homes, waterways and livelihoods are threatened. PLEASE, make your voice heard!
Mosaic already owns the land, but not the rights to mine it. The DeSoto Board of County Commissioners is holding a public meeting to vote on rezoning the land from agricultural to phosphate mining. While we do not have a vote, we do have a voice.
ATTEND THIS MEETING AND MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD:
Start Date: Tuesday, July 24, 2018 6:30-10:30pm
To Continue (if necessary): Wednesday, July 25, 2018 2:00-7:00pm
Location: Board of County Commissioners Meeting Room in the DeSoto County Administration Building, 201 E. Oak Street, Arcadia, FL 34266
There will be a gathering on Monday, July 23 at 6:00pm at Leroy's Southern Kitchen in Downtown Punta Gorda that will allow everyone to gather, learn more and prepare for the BOCC meeting.
My parents' home is on Horse Creek. The place that I grew up digging for sharks teeth, camping every weekend and riding 4wheelers. I have memories of my Uncle Larry cooking froglegs and my dad telling ghost stories of Swampman Sam. I've sat by this creek many times when I've been sad and I've taken photos by it during the happiest time of my life: engaged to the man I will marry. This place is a part of me and with the proposal of these mining operations, I've never felt more threatened in my life.
Now, this place could become a contaminated sewage pipe, carrying hazardous waste down Peace River to the people in Charlotte County. My three nieces may never get to experience what it's like to play in Horse Creek and that thought alone brings me to tears.
Mike and I live on the Peace River in Punta Gorda. Our livelihood revolves around being on the water and the health of our estuaries. We deeply enjoy the beauty of this river that we call home and I've spent too much time being fearful about what will happen to it if this goes forward.
Here is what I will tell anyone who is directly affected by the outcome of the BOCC meetings: Hold on to what you believe in, whatever that may be for you. No matter what others speculate or how much money is on the table; for me, my belief is that the story is already written. It's in the good Lord's book and He is the ultimate decision-maker. If the fight must go on, then we'll “take up our weapons.” Until then, let's come together as a community and give 'em hell.
JULY ‘18 UPDATE: BOCC DENIES MOSAIC
So, what happened in the DeSoto Board of County Commissioners meeting on July 24, 2018? Hundreds of concerned citizens from several counties turned out to urge the BOCC to deny Mosaic’s request to re-zone. The commissioner’s chambers overflowed, every seat occupied, and countless people lining the walls.
First, Mosaic presented their proposal, filled with grandiose visions of increased jobs and beautifully restored land. The DeSoto County staff and planner, Earl Hahn, had advised the board members to approve the re-zone, stating that a simple re-zone didn’t need to adhere to the 15 criteria that the proposal was being judged by.
Next, the floor was opened for public comment. Mothers of children from nearby mining towns shared medical records of illness they claim to be caused by mining operations. Business owners. Scientists. Fishing guides. Certified experts. The BOCC heard 11 hours of testimony that spanned the course of two days.
This led the commissioners, particularly Commissioner Elton Langford, to begin asking Mosaic some important questions like how much water would be discharged into Horse Creek and Peace River (1-30 million gallons) and how often the discharge would be tested by a third party (once a year). Question by question, the phosphate mining facade was penetrated and Langford led the motion to deny the re-zone.
We watched Facebook live with bated breath as the BOCC proceeded with the vote. Against all odds, the DeSoto County Commissioners voted 4-1 to deny Mosaic’s proposal. The room erupted in applause, our jaws dropped, we cheered and cried. Even the most optimistic people didn’t actually believe that Mosaic would be denied. This went against the belief that many know to be true about small-town politics and big money.
While the fight isn’t over, this victory was necessary . Thank you to everyone who is fighting to help protect our health, communities, and environment from the dangers of phosphate mining. And to the commissioners who denied the re-zone: Elton Lanford, Judy Schaeffer, Buddy Mansfield, and Jim Selph. (Terry Hill was the only vote to approve.)
What’s next? A lengthy mediation process between Mosaic and DeSoto County BOCC. Stay tuned.