What encompasses portions of Hardee, Hillsborough, Manatee, and Polk counties? Bone Valley; the largest known deposits of phosphate and with some of the largest plants in the United States. Most of the plants in the area are owned by one company, Mosaic. Further, Mosaic is one of the biggest phosphate company in the world. And all of the plants in the area are the equivalent of a time bomb is ticking.
In August 2016, one did go off. At the Mulberry plant in Polk County, on the morning of Saturday, August 27th workers checked the water in a 78-acre pond of polluted water that was sitting atop a 190-foot gyp stack and discovered it had dropped by more than a foot. Initially, the workers decided it was just the wind blowing. But on a Sunday, when the workers checked again, the level was now down three feet.
Mosaic, workers soon found a sinkhole 45 feet wide and 220 feet deep that had opened up beneath the stack. 215 million gallons of contaminated was now flowing into the region’s drinking water. For 10 days, consultants, state DEP, and Mosaic employees called it an “anomaly” or a “water loss incident.”
Unfortunately, geologists knew from the start what was happening and could do nothing. Not until the pond had completely drained out, could everyone see the fissure. At this point, they finally called it was it was, a spill.
With a prior history of one of the biggest Florida sinkholes ever recorded in 1994 at this very same facility, geologists said they should have known from the start what it was. The 1994 sinkhole of 160 feet wide and 200 feet deep was dubbed a new Disney ride, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The distance between the two sink holes was a mile and a quarter.
Currently, there are roughly 25 stacks throughout Bone Valley. Mosaic in 2014 asked Polk County offices for permission to make one of the Mulberry stacks twice as wide and nearly 400 feet tall. This would be taller than the highest natural point in Florida and 345 feet above sea level.
From the beaches and theme parks, Floridians and tourist never see the stacks. The only thing Floridians know about Mosaic is that they vow “to always take our commitment to the environment seriously” and “to keep the natural beauty of Florida…Florida.” They do support county fairs, local parks, own a bird sanctuary and have provided the financing for a documentary about connecting Florida’s natural areas into one long wildlife corridor. Mosaic is a financial backer of the Mote Marine Laboratory’s fish hatchery and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ children’s rainforest exhibit.
The phosphate industry has been part of Florida’s economy since 1881. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers first discovered phosphate deposits in the Peace River. To it’s an $85-billion industry that supplies three-fourths of the phosphate used in the United States.
How phosphate is made
To get the underground deposits, miners will use a dragline with a large bucket, close to the size of a truck. The dragline will scoop up 30 feet of the earth which contains phosphate rocks mixed with clay and sand. The bucket then dumps it into a pit where high-pressure water guns create a slurry, which will then be pumped to the plant 10 miles away.
- The phosphate is separated from the sand and clay at the plant.
- The clay slurry is then pumped into a settling pond.
- The phosphate will then be 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 barren land year after the mining began.
The wetlands and the damage
All of the miners have destroyed the wetland, most have promised to restore it after they have begun. For most this seems like an impossible task. Forty percent of the land that’s left behind after mining is covered by clary-slurry settling ponds. A crust forms on the top of the ponds within five years. What remains under the crust is a soft as a bowl of chocolate pudding.
Kevin Erwin, a Florida wetlands expert said in 2005, “You’re really talking about creating wetlands after 60 to 80 feet of earth have been souffléed.”