A defunct fertilizer plant in Florida has become one of the state's greatest ecological threats, as the acidic water left behind threatens to spill over and kill Tampa Bay's marine life. St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman discusses how the situation got so bad.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And coming up: The starling wars. But first: Florida is facing what one state official calls a major environmental threat. The problem is a fertilizer plant that went out of business and left behind dangerously acidic water sitting in huge ponds on its property near Tampa Bay. With the rainy season approaching officials fear these ponds may spill over into the Bay, killing marine life. Craig Pittman is a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. He says problems at this fertilizer plant have been brewing for some time.
PITTMAN: This plant was opened in the 1960s by a subsidiary of Borden and it immediately began causing environmental problems with illegal dumping in an estuary connected to Tampa Bay, toxic leaks that sickened the workers and sent the neighbors running and killed cattle. And by the time the 1990s rolled around, the company had gone through a series of owners and the plant itself was pretty much shutdown for most of the 1990s. The owners who had it last kept promising the state “we’re going to get new investors; we’re going to reopen,” but they never did. And state officials kind of turned a blind eye to the problem. They knew that the company was in financial trouble. They knew that there was this kind of ticking time bomb out there with the waste that was stacked up on top of the gypsum stacks, but they did not take any action – even though their own employees were warning them, “hey you know this is a problem; we need to do something.” They didn’t do anything until the company finally went bankrupt and the owners walked away in January of 2001.
CURWOOD: Now, you say that a phosphate fertilizer plant, if it’s operating, these waste ponds and stacks, aren’t that much of a problem. They tend to recycle the stuff but if they shut down, that’s when the problem begins. Given the length of the shutdown, how severe, how difficult is the problem that the state of Florida faces in trying to deal with this?
PITTMAN: It has become a tremendous problem because we were going through a three year drought when this plant first shut down. And so, if the state had stepped in prior to the owners declaring bankruptcy, they would have had some breathing room to deal with all that water that had collected on top of the stack because there was no rain.
However, the drought ended rather decisively later in 2001 when we had massive amounts of rain from a tropical storm. And then on New Year’s Eve 2002, we had a 16 inch downpour. And each inch of rain adds something like 12 million gallons more water into the stack for them to try to get rid of. And so, the amount of rain that has fallen on the stack since they’ve taken it over has far exceeded the amount they’ve been able to get rid of, through treating it and dumping it into Bishops Harbor, which is an estuary connected to Tampa Bay, and other methods that they’ve been using. They just simply have not been able to keep up.
CURWOOD: What’s the plan now? What are they trying to do with it?
PITTMAN: Well, this spring, the state Department of Environmental Protection got permission from the U.S. EPA to load this stuff on a barge – to treat it first, I should say, with lime to lower the acid content – but then load it on board a barge and ship it out into the Gulf of Mexico and dump it out there. So the barge, which holds about seven and a half million gallons, has already made something like 11 or 12 trips out into the Gulf to disperse it out there. The theory being that it will be so diluted by the Gulf of Mexico that any environmental harm will be minimal. The area fishing industry is very concerned about this and very upset. And they are worried that what they’re dumping out there will kill fish and ruin their livelihood out there.
CURWOOD: Now, Florida produces phosphate for folks all over the country. Is the problem that you’re facing there at Piney Point, is the problem limited to that plant or is this a fairly common problem?
PITTMAN: It’s the only one that we’ve had with this specific problem. However, we have had problems cropping up elsewhere. A sister plant to this one, that was next to the Alafia river, the ponds overflowed into the Alafia river in 1997 and killed millions of fish, all up and down the river for miles. There are about 24 more gyp stacks around the state, and state legislators, and even phosphate industry executives, are worried. Because the industry is struggling right now and they’re concerned that if another company goes under, we could face yet another cleanup like this. And the money that’s being spent on cleaning up Piney Point, it’s draining the fund that’s there. The taxpayers may be on the hook for another multi-million dollar cleanup, and we may not have the money to deal with it.
CURWOOD: Craig Pittman is a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times. Thanks for taking this time with us today.
PITTMAN: Happy to do it.
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