AMERICA'S FRIGHTENING PHOSPHATE PROBLEM

Phosphate Mining's Significant Threats to America's Water and Wildlife

Synthetic phosphate fertilizer poses a serious threat to our environment. Phosphate rock mining, along with the inorganic fertilizers and animal feed supplements and pesticides for which phosphate is mined, pollute our air, contaminate our water and destroy invaluable wildlife habitat.

Especially in Florida.

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. Making matters worse, Florida also has the majority of the industry’s radioactive waste, phosphogypsum — one billion tons.

 


The Mining Process

Strip mining for phosphate rock violently transforms the environment, irreparably changing the character of the natural landscape. In many cases mines displace plants and animals and eat up thousands of acres of valuable habitat that are impossible to 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.

Making Fertilizer

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. There are 70 such stacks across the nation. These stacks are prone to sinkholes, breaches, and spills, and the industry struggles with how to deal with these risky radioactive mountains and the dire problems they cause.

Say “No More” to Phosphate Mining and Phosphogypsum Production

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 2020 the Center sued the Environmental Protection Agency for authorizing the use of phosphogypsum in road construction. In 2021 we petitioned the EPA to better regulate phosphogypsum under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

In 2021 the Center filed another notice of intent to sue the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for its role in the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack disaster, which released more than 200 million gallons of polluted wastewater into Tampa Bay, threatening Florida manatees and sea turtles.  

Florida panther photo by RodneyCammauf, National Park Service