Processed phosphates — little-discussed but widely spread throughout the food chain — pose a serious threat to our environment. Phosphate rock mining, along with the inorganic fertilizers and animal feed supplements for which phosphate is mined, pollute our air, contaminate our water and destroy invaluable wildlife habitat.
Especially in Florida.
Because in fact, the state of Florida is home to the majority of phosphate-mining operations in the United States — and the United States is the world’s third-leading producer of phosphate rock. Thus it’s not all that surprising that Florida hosts the world’s largest phosphate strip mine —100,000 acres wide.
Strip mining for phosphate rock violently transforms the environment, irreparably changing the character of the natural landscape. In many cases mines displace species and eat up thousands of acres of valuable habitat that are impossible to truly restore to their natural state. In Florida habitat loss is a significant issue, particularly for at-risk species such as the tiny oval pigtoe mussel — which relies on clean water to survive — and the large, iconic Florida panther.
Most mining of phosphate rock involves clearing large swaths of vegetation and digging up the soil beneath to reach the phosphate-ore-containing matrix 60 to 80 feet below the surface. This matrix is then transported by pipeline to a nearby plant, where the phosphate ore is forcibly separated from the sand and clay by a process known as “beneficiation.” Beneficiation creates clay-settling “ponds ,” further destroying habitat, from which it can take decades to remove water and which can scar the landscape and contaminate surrounding habitat.
After beneficiation, the separated phosphate ore is treated with sulfuric acid to produce phosphoric acid, which is used in synthetic fertilizer. The process also creates phosphogypsum, a radioactive byproduct that is stored in mountainous stacks that are hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall. More than 1 billion tons of the radioactive waste are stored in 25 stacks scattered throughout Florida, perched precariously atop the Floridan aquifer — which supplies drinking water for 10 million people. These stacks are prone to sinkholes, and the industry is still struggling with how to deal with these risky radioactive mountains and the dire problems they’ve already been causing.
More than half of all domestically sourced phosphate is mined in Florida, by an industry with a record of contaminating the environment through radioactive waste leakage and water pollution that threatens Florida's groundwater resources. Now there are plans to tear up more than 50,000 additional acres of central Florida with harmful strip-mining practices — and no plan to address the radioactive phosphogypsum stacks that have already been created.
In 2016 the Center filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for authorizing these phosphate mining projects, which would irretrievably damage imperiled endangered species habitat, threaten water quality and forever change Florida’s landscape. In March 2017 we filed suit in an effort to protect Floridians and Florida wildlife from more than 50,000 acres of phosphate strip mining.