Appeal Seeks to Protect Floridians, 50,000+ Acres, From Radioactive Waste and Phosphate Strip Mining

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Four conservation organizations today filed an appeal challenging a Florida district court’s decision that greenlights the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permit to phosphate strip-mine more than 50,000 acres and produce mountains of radioactive fertilizer waste, jeopardizing Florida’s aquifers and irreversibly destroying native plant and animal habitat in west-central Florida.

The appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals aims to overturn a lower court’s decision upholding the Corps’ approval of mining that would threaten freshwater resources by allowing the unchecked growth of phosphogypsum “stacks” and obliterating wetlands and habitat for animals already clinging to survival.

“Florida’s citizens have had enough of the phosphate industry that puts our aquifers at risk and decimates habitat for our wildlife,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Corps’ failure to analyze these threats is unlawful and will devastate nearby communities.”

Once phosphate ore is removed from the earth via strip mining, it is sent to nearby fertilizer plants, where sulfuric acid turns it into phosphoric acid. This process results in thousands of acres of mutilated habitat and millions of tons of phosphogypsum, the radioactive byproduct of making fertilizer.

“Florida’s 24 open-air “gypstacks” may be the largest repository of toxic and hazardous waste in the United States,” said Andy Mele, Suncoast Waterkeeper.  “It is a toxic legacy with which no one in Florida has yet come to terms.”

Florida is already home to more than 1 billion tons of radioactive phosphogypsum, and the proposal would add approximately half a billion more tons. The phosphogypsum is piled up in stacks hundreds of feet high and hundreds of acres wide, and these “gypstacks” are prone to sinkholes and breaches. Florida is saddled with 24 gypstacks, while the majority of the fertilizer is exported abroad. In 2016, a sinkhole opened in a phosphogysum stack in Mulberry, releasing 215 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Floridan aquifer. This was not the first time a sinkhole opened in a gypstack, and was not even the first time a sinkhole opened at that gypstack.

“For too long, the phosphate industry has externalized the costs of its pollution.” said Glenn Compton, executive director of ManaSota-88. “Radioactive toxic waste disposal should not be an expense or risk the public has to deal with.”

The appeal cites violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act by the Army Corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for approving the project in a region of Florida known as Bone Valley. The conservation groups that filed today’s appeal are the Center for Biological Diversity, ManaSota-88, People for Protecting Peace River and Suncoast Waterkeeper.