Mosaic Plant Under State and Federal Scrutiny in Louisiana- “Emergency Conditions”

The environment in Louisiana has long been held hostage by a plethora of giant factories and plants in the middle of the state. They use the Mississippi River as a source of freshwater for their operations, and are surrounded, in many cases, by fields of sugarcane or other crops. The oil industry is prevalent here, along with oil-user industries, like plastics producers. The story of the month, though, comes from the phosphate industry. Mosaic, a phosphate mining and processing company that also has heavy operations in Florida, is currently working under investigation by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality as well as the Feds at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The scrutiny comes after it was found that the north face of one of their phosphogypsum stacks was shifting. A stack is basically an area where acidic, toxic, and radioactive slurry runoff from the mining and processing of phosphate is dumped. As the solids settle to the bottom, the dumping site “stacks” upon itself, forming a giant, above-ground pool of incredibly acidic, environmentally unfriendly wastewater. The goal is to skim the top of the pool after a settling period for reuse. Of course, heavy rain can force the hands of the plant managers, and excesses need to be pumped into new stacks, or in some reported cases, pumped into “deep injection wells” underground, which can come with a litany of environmental issues in itself.

The stack in question- from the road, about a half-mile mile away, I still couldn’t get the entire length of the wall in frame.

The stack in question is gigantic- It’s 3000 feet long and over 187 feet high. And the north slope is shifting at a “half-inch to 0.6 inches per day,” according to DEQ spokesperson Greg Langley. The cause of the shift isn’t apparent, but a sudden failure of the wall would be environmentally catastrophic, and the site is operating under “emergency conditions.”

The plant is nestled next to the Mississippi River, upstream from New Orleans. Experts say it would be unlikely that much of the runoff would actually make it to the Mississippi for geographical reasons and the high land buffer between the plant and the river, but it could affect the Blind River to the north and all the land in between. It could also affect surrounding communities- in Florida, there are preliminary reports of high cancer rates near phosphate plants, which might be due to the radioactive nature of phosphogypsum and the runoff.

Satellite view showing relative size of the stack to other bodies of water.

The release of excess runoff into nearby waterways in Florida is seen as a possible contributing factor to harmful algae blooms that have plagued the state and the Gulf in recent years. Runoff is legal to dump if sufficiently diluted. Otherwise, there are no real options for dealing with these waste sites- they sit like open sores, waiting for some catastrophic natural event, like a sinkhole or a hurricane, to breach the stacks and release the waste into the surrounding environment.

Satellite close-up view of the stack and the Mosaic plant

Currently, Mosaic is constructing a road leading through the sugarcane fields to the north of the stack in order to allow access for large trucks to start dumping sediment to create a “buttress” in case of a breach in the north wall, according to Langley. They are also pumping what they can out of the 500-million gallon reservoir in hopes of slowing down the rate of shifting, but with a week of rain on the Louisiana horizon, it might be too little, too late.

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Gettin’ Busy in the Forest

Lieutenant Planet is currently in Tallahassee. This comes after a major win in the Ocala National Forest!

Originally, I was passing through ONF to camp for the night. The recreational areas there are privately maintained, and not affected by the shutdown. After camping, I was driving West on FL-40 through the forest and I noticed there was trash EVERYWHERE. The roadsides aren’t officially part of the National Forest, and they had been allowed to languish. So I decided to stop there for longer and start cleaning while I figured out who (if anyone) was responsible for roadsides.

I committed the Lieutenant Planet initiative to cleaning the entire East-West stretch of FL-40 through the forest. I spent 5-6 hours a day picking up trash, and organized a community cleanup event through the local churches, the newspaper, and various schools and volunteer organizations. I also talked to the Florida Department of Transportation about the mess and they agreed to get the full bags cleaned up after we were done. When the day came for the cleanup, 5 people came, 4 of them from out of town. It wasn’t the turnout I was hoping for, but it ended up getting the job done anyway, even though we didn’t get a lot (relative to the size of the project- 17 miles of trashed roadway) done. How then? The power of action!

LIV the Planet-Van and is Cleanup-Event-ready!

I’ll explain:

When I called the DoT, they called the company subcontracted for road maintenance, DBi Services, and told them that there was a guy coordinating an event using local media to clean up the park’s roadsides. Which isn’t a good thing for a company that has hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts through the Florida DoT. So a few days of cleaning up after the event, I’m heading to Juniper Springs campsite to shower.

I would like to mention here that the juniper springs staff was very friendly and let me have the cleanup right outside their park. They also let anyone cleaning the roadside into the park for free to use the restrooms or get food and drinks. They also expressed concern over the roadways and offered to try to hold their own cleanup event!

So I’m heading down the road and I see two guys on golf carts, picking up trash on the roadsides. Their truck says DBi Services. Previous to this, I didn’t know that they were subcontracted by the DoT. I stopped the van and talked to them, asking where they were from, who paid them, how often they came out, etc. They told me what company they worked for, that they were contracted by DoT, and that they usually came out every couple months to mow, but “someone” had lodged a complaint about the roadsides and organized a cleanup event and talked to the newspaper. I was filled with pride at the moment, but just gave them a “you don’t say” response and left to take a happy shower.

Next day, I called the DoT again, this time talking to the local yard manager, Jeff. He walked me through some of the requirements and parameters that DBi has as per their contract, and gave me the number to their customer service department. At that time, they only had a complaint about the roads on FL-40 near Juniper Springs. But now, armed with new information, I called back.

As per their contract, there is only supposed to be up to 3 square feet of trash per mile of roadway. I was collecting a 30-gallon trash bag full every 100-200 yards, and I told them so. Also, as per their contract, they have to actively respond to citizen complaints within 48 hours. But I broadened the scope of the complaint to include ALL of FL-40 through the forest, as well as ALL of FL-19 through the forest, which goes North and South. They told me it would take two weeks to get it cleaned up.

At this point I stopped cleaning the mess myself and let the guys getting paid to do it take over. I dedicated a day to giving out the correct numbers to call if the roadsides got trashed again to employees at various recreational areas throughout the forest. And I will share them with you, my wonderful readers, as well:

First contact: DBi Services Customer Service Request Line for the Ocala area: 352-622-6279

If that doesn’t get results: Local FDoT Maintenance Yard: 352-620-3000

I, myself, went a little above and beyond as well, and contacted the FDoT’s Fraud Department and opened a ticket with them about the contract requirements not being met, just as another oversight measure. But sadly, DBi Services has met enough of their requirements to keep their contract. What I found out was that DBi’s performance rating goal for road maintenance is only an 80%. As per the 2016-17 Performance and Production Review, page 68, their composite score for the area was 84%.

And herein lies the problem. The contracts are made through legislators, and the performance that the legislators require is layed out in the FDoT 2017 Performance Report:

 “To determine the maintenance rating, field conditions are evaluated by rating each highway component to develop an overall maintenance condition score. Conditions are compared to FDOT standards and a composite state score is set. The maintenance condition rating system evaluates five highway components:

• Roadway – potholes, pavement joints, paved shoulders, and pavement distress

• Roadside – unpaved shoulders, slopes, sidewalks, and fences

• Traffic services – signs, lighting, guardrails, striping, attenuators, handrail, and pavement markers

• Drainage – storm drains, ditches, roadway sweeping, inlets, and pavement edge drain outlets

• Vegetation/aesthetics – landscaping, litter removal, turf condition, and tree trimming”

With a composite score system, a contractor could literally never pick up litter and still meet and exceed the 80% requirement to keep their contract, as long as nobody calls to file a complaint.

And this is exactly what DBi Services was doing. It was woefully apparent that they were just mowing over trash instead of picking it up, which meant large pieces of trash were turned into dozens of small pieces of trash. I saw this every day I was out on the roadsides picking it up- crushed bottles, shredded Styrofoam and plastic, pieces of rubber tires pushed into the dirt, etc.

The big win for Lieutenant Planet was a big win for Ocala National Forest. I charged Tara, an employee at Juniper Springs who was intensely interested in cleaning up the forest, with being the first line of defense for the Forest for the foreseeable future, as Juniper Springs is on FL-40 and also near FL-19. She told me that Lieutenant Planet had taken a big first step and had gotten a lot of people excited about keeping the forest clean, and that she would use the contacts I gave her whenever it was needed.

I am proud of the progress of this initiative, and I hope it can keep doing wonderful works. Ocala National Forest is healing, but DBi Services is under contract for 592 miles of roadway just in that one (out of nine) zone of Florida through the FDoT. The next step is to contact our legislators and tell them to do away with the composite scoring system, and make the requirement to keep their contracts 80% (90?) for EACH category. If the FDoT employees could do it before DBi was given the contract, then DBi can do it, too. It’s our tax dollars at work here! We can demand better!

And that is why Lieutenant Planet is now in Florida’s capital. The next goal is to find out what it will take to change those contracts for the health of Florida’s environment.

Along those lines, if you want to be a part of the Lieutenant Planet initiative of environmental activism and journalism, you can support the effort by subscribing for as little as $1/month on Patreon. A subscription will also give you access to my video-series and travel log as I span the country, as well as show legislators the strength of the political will of the Lieutenant Planet movement! BE the change you want to see, the power is yours!

Environmental Equity

The purpose of Lieutenant Planet is to ring the environmental alarm bells while learning and teaching and fighting for a healthier planet. It is, then, absolutely necessary to talk about environmental equity. Environmental equity involves the level of positive environmental progress made and how its benefits spread across the socioeconomic plane of a community or nation. Some might argue that it’s more important to just make whatever progress we can, wherever we can. While I understand and agree with that sense of urgency, I would argue that not paying attention to environmental equity as we progress could prove to be catastrophically short-sighted and eventually counterproductive.

It goes without saying that wealthier communities waste and consume a lot more than their poorer counterparts. There is absolutely a need to replace wasteful consumer practices in these areas with more sustainable ones, as it is in these communities such practices will provide the greatest impact for the survival of the planet.

But as necessary resources inevitably grow more scarce, the price of said resources will grow past being accessible to the poor. It is important to focus some funding for the under-privileged before food and clean water shortages become desperate crises. Desperation does not leave room for respect for protective regulation, and will serve to undermine policies put in place to protect the environment. It will also lead to worldwide refugee crises, as are already starting to be seen.

It is now painfully easy to imagine a world where the wealthiest have walled themselves off from the rest of the population, and afford their luxury through military conquest while the world around them is eaten alive by the poor in a desperate bid to survive. But it is also easy to imagine a world connected by the common cause of survival through sustainability. While we focus on cutting carbon emissions and consumer pollution from wealthy areas, we must not forget to start putting in place sustainable technologies in underprivileged areas that provide a continuous supply of nutrient-rich food and clean water. To do that, we also must make sure that corporate interests aren’t making it impossible to do so. From deforestation to fracking to pipelines, ruining land and water resources that the wealthy are uninterested in serves none of us in the long run.

So what do we do to help maintain environmental equity as we strive for independence from unsustainable practices and consumption as a whole?

  1. Protect fresh water sources.

A lot of time and energy is being used to treat fresh water to make it viable for agricultural applications and consumption. But such treatments usually occur near the end-market. That is, it stays dirty until it gets to a place with enough resources to clean and use it. This is awful for the environments the polluted water runs through, degrading and destroying the ecosystems that prop up the planets basest food chains- the ones the unindustrialized poor rely on most.

Keeping water clean and clear is an important part of environmental equity- everyone needs water to live!

Major sources of water pollution are often industrial- water used for transport, cooling or cleaning is often discarded back to the source it came from with the expectation that it will be diluted enough to not impact the environment. This thinking is fundamentally flawed, and the practice should be outlawed. It is financial concerns for other methods of waste removal that keep this practice in play.

But fret not! For there are options for cleaning waste water before it re-enters the environment. One option in it’s infancy is called Phased Transaction Extraction, which is being tested in Israel. Israel Science Info magazine writes,

“The two-step customizable process uses lightly heated solvents to extract organic compounds, while simultaneously removing heavy metals with one or more chelating agents — large molecules that bond to the toxic metals and separate them from the source medium.”

This process would remove organic and inorganic impurities from their medium- whether it be water or even contaminated sludge, and the agents used to do so would be 100% reusable. This process would, on a large scale supported by international policy, drastically reduce the worlds industrial wastewater impact without requiring an unrealistic expenditure on wet-waste removal. This would mean that the natural fresh-water sources that the worlds unindustrialized peoples rely on would remain cleaner and safer from upstream contamination.

2. Protect arable land

It is unconscionable that while in some places of the world we are bulldozing through viable farmland for pipelines and industry, while in other places we are bulldozing through rainforests for farmland. With the human population rising at an exponential rate, we have to prepare for a future that is sustainable with the land we have, while recognizing that a lot of that land will be taken up by a living populous. So how do we do this?

One option lies in agricultural streamlining and integration. We have the technology! Wide expanses of rural farmland are, in some cases, completely unnecessary. Vertical farming, a technique that employs hydroponic growth in vertical layers, exponentially decreases the amount of land needed to grow food. It can also be integrated onto existing buildings in urban areas, meaning that a considerable chunk of the food supply for urban areas, including poor urban areas, would be produced without the need for costly transit, all while taking up relatively insignificant quantities of land and simultaneously improving air quality in an urban environment.

3. Strictly regulate commercial fishing

Many indigenous peoples are located near water by necessity. Fishing, then, is often a major source of food for such people. Fishing for daily use does not have a heavy impact on marine life. Commercial fishing, by comparison, has a catastrophic effect. Firstly, a significant amount of marine life is lost to “bycatch” in commercial fishing. Bycatch is marine life that is caught unintentionally. Secondly, even within the realm of commercial seafood, another significant amount is wasted before it is sold or eaten. Thirdly, overfishing changes entire underwater ecosystems that we are woefully inept at understanding. The loss of biodiversity destroys food-chains, meaning the “bycatch” we see is actually just a small portion of the marine life we are affecting. It has been predicted that, at current rates of fishing and ocean warming, all seafood with run out within the next 50 years.

These are three ways to keep the sustainability movement in full swing, while maintaining long-term economic feasibility and environmental equity. There are many more! There are an infinite number of ways to keep our world healthier for all, we have only to keep using our creative forces for the cause and stop letting the industrial giants fill us with the fear that employing these ideas would cripple our economies. We have the means to provide food and water for every person on Earth, it’s just a matter of putting better techniques into practice- Ones that work for everyone instead of a select few.

Big Sugar and the 2018 Blue-Green Algae Crisis

There is a lot of misinformation going around about “Big Sugar” and its culpability in the Florida algae bloom crisis of 2018. There are some truths out there, but by and large we have to remember- Big sugar is made up mostly of farmers. Farmers that need a stable, clean environment to grow crops. The problem, it seems, is that they only seem to care about their own land.

The sugar industry in Florida is made up of big players like U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, as well as some smaller company farms. These entities own over 700,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake in Florida.

Sugarcane as far as the eye can see, behind a water pump sitting in algae-covered water

Amid the algae crisis, many people were quick to point blame at the sugar cane farms. Florida Crystals was just as quick to point out that water from Lake Okeechobee flows South, so the major bloom sites to the East and West (The St. Lucie River the Caloosahatchee River, respectively) couldn’t have come from their agricultural runoff. They place the blame on Okeechobee pollution to the North- from smaller farms and rural areas, as well as the Orlando area. There were then accusations from environmentalists of back-pumping agricultural water back North into the lake, among other things. These claims have been refuted, but that doesn’t leave the sugar industry with a clean record.

Yes, there is a problem with how Florida treats its water systems. Major sources of algae-causing nutrients include the innocuous- the prevalence of septic tank systems and fertilizer runoff in rural central Florida, from Orlando to the lake, for instance. And water testing does seem to point to those sources as the main sources for the blue-green algae bloom. And no, Big sugar doesn’t back-pump water into those rivers…

But.

Water from Lake Okeechobee is largely levied from flowing South in order to protect the sugarcane farmland from being flooded. Excess water is sent, you guessed it, through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. In fact, according to some estimates, in 2016 alone, enough water was redirected into the St. Lucie River to protect 630,000 acres of sugarcane farmland to the south from being a foot under water.

So no, the cane growers did not directly pollute that water. But they did stop it from flowing through the Florida wetlands, which would naturally dilute and clean the nutrient-laden water before it went out to the Gulf or the Atlantic. Instead they had the Army Corp of Engineers send the water from Lake Okeechobee through two small channels that quickly became environmentally overburdened, resulting in the toxic blue-green algae crisis that hurt wildlife and people alike.

Lake Okeechobee

The problem, then, is not that Big Sugar is actively participating in fouling up the water, but that Big Sugar exists. If the sugar cane farms didn’t exist, water from the North could flow freely through the lake, and then through the natural filter of the South Florida wetlands. And that water wouldn’t have the excess runoff from the farms either (which does still happen).

Efforts from Florida legislators to force the sale of these lands back to the state for environmental reasons have time and again been foiled. Big Sugar has Big Lobbying Power, after all. And the claim that they aren’t directly responsible for the water contamination helps their case.

At this point it comes down to the constituents of Florida to demand that their legislators take action on the sugar industry, and demand hard. Political figures like Senator Marco Rubio and former Governor Rick Scott have deep connections with the industry, and seem largely unwilling to give those connections up.

But what would life look like for the average Floridian if those farms were gone? Well of course, thousands of people would lose their jobs- and that’s a tough hurdle. But also, South Florida’s natural beauty and waterways could largely be restored. The tourism industry would flourish without the news stories of people getting respiratory problems from toxic algae.

And then there is this little secret:

Without those sugar farms, sugar across the US would cost… Less.

That’s right. The sugar industry benefits from federal sugar programs via domestic price supports and tariffs and quotas on imported sugar. In fact, according to South Florida’s SunSentinel and American Enterprise Institute economist Mark Perry, “American consumers and domestic sugar-using industries have been forced to pay twice the world price of sugar for many generations.” It’s all a federally propped-up racket that costs consumers more across the board.

If Floridians and environmentalists across the country don’t step up, it’s the taxpayers that are eventually going to have to foot the bill for an unprecedented cleanup effort of the Florida wetlands in the not-so-distant future, after generations of paying double for the goods the sugar industry produced in the first place due to government corruption.

Phosphate Mining and its Effect on the Environment

Today, Lieutenant Planet was in Mulberry, Florida. Mulberry is the self-proclaimed Phosphate Capital of the World and home to a major phosphate mining and processing company called Mosaic. But what is phosphate? Why do we need it, and what effect does mining and processing it have on the surrounding environment?

When people think Florida economy, they think tourism, hospitality, oranges, sugar, and Boiled P-Nuts from roadside stands. But Florida is also the single biggest source in the country for phosphate. Phosphate is used to make calcium phosphate nutritional supplements for animals, phosphorus for industrial purposes, and most widely for fertilizer for agriculture. Most of the phosphate fertilizer used in the US has an origin in Florida.

Mosaic’s New Wales phosphate plant from the border of the property outside of Mulberry, Florida.

Though phosphorus fertilizer can be made from bone meal and manures, mineral sources of phosphate are cheaper. This is where Mosaic and phosphate mining come into play. How does Mosaic obtain phosphate? Via their website:

“Phosphate rock is usually found 15-50 feet beneath the ground in a mixture of phosphate pebbles, sand and clay known as phosphate “matrix.” The sandy layer above the matrix, called the overburden, is removed using electrically operated draglines. Equipped with large buckets, these draglines remove the overburden, placing it in the previously mined voids, and excavate the matrix, depositing it into a shallow containment area or slurry pit. There, high-pressure water guns turn the material into a watery mixture called slurry, which is sent through pipelines to a processing facility, referred to as a beneficiation plant, where phosphate rock is physically separated from the sand and clay in the matrix.

At the plant, the slurry is moved through a series of washing stations and vibrating screens that physically separate clay, sand and pebble-sized particles. The separated phosphate pebbles are moved through dewatering tanks and onto an inventory pile via conveyor belt. The clay particles are then pumped through pipelines into storage ponds (clay settling areas) where these particles sink to the bottom. These ponds function as reservoirs and help Mosaic recycle or reuse approximately 90 percent of the water at its phosphate facilities, while also supporting a variety of wildlife.”

So they reuse 90% of the water they use to make the slurry to the plant. Sounds great, right? But let’s ask about the other 10 percent. The leftovers that sit in their “storage ponds,” referred to as “stacks” by many because the clay stacks up on the bottom and the sides to form an almost natural-looking hill. But they aren’t hills. They are giant (hundreds of yards across and over a hundred feet tall), aboveground pits filled with mining runoff called phosphogypsum. What’s wrong with phosphogypsum? According to a 1992(!) report titled “Environmental Impacts of Phosphogypsum” from the University of Alberta,

“The main environmental concerns associated with phosphogypsum are: (i) movement of fluoride, sulfate, total dissolved solids, certain trace elements, and radionuclides from the U-238 decay series below phosphogypsum stacks into groundwater supplies; (ii) radon-222 exhalation which may pose a health risk to workers on the site or people living close to stacks; (iii) acidity; and (iv) radon-222 exhalation from soil into residential homes when agricultural land previously treated with phosphogypsum is converted to residential usage.”

You read that right- these sites leak radioactive material and other environmentally disruptive chemicals into the groundwater and surrounding ecosystems. Though these chemicals are naturally occurring, the shift and concentration of these elements from underground and sporadic to aboveground and highly concentrated presents a major problem. These stacks are prone to Florida sinkholes, natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes, and size limitations. When they are in danger of overfilling, all that can be done is to release the chemicals back into Florida waterways in diluted form. Though this diluted overflow is technically legal, it introduces a lot of new nutrients into the Florida wetlands and rivers.

Last year in Florida there was a record-breaking red tide and green algae bloom event. It dragged on through the summer and fall, killing hundreds of thousands of marine animals off the coast of Florida and in the freshwater waterways. Phosphate mining is a major contributor to this event and other like it in the past. Mosaic in particular has a long and checkered history with environmental mishaps, including one that cost them nearly $2 billion in a federal lawsuit a few years ago. Though they sponsor and fund a lot of environmental projects, one must assume it is only necessary public-relations work for an industry that is inherently bad for the surrounding environment.

The Alafia River at Alafia River State Park, just a few miles from the Mosaic phosphate plant outside Mulberry, Florida. We were hard pressed to find water on the river that wasn’t coated by green algae.

Phosphate, like oil, is becoming increasingly harder to find in large deposits. The world’s supply mainly derives from China, the western Sahara, and Florida. Sensing a looming shortage, China has severely reduced its phosphate exports, and the US has stopped exporting entirely. What does this mean? Well, in industries like this, it means the race is on. As cheap phosphorus becomes more scarce, it’s value rises, and these industries stand to make more money than ever before until the resource is all but exhausted. Currently, Mosaic is the largest phosphate mining company in the world, and is in the process of expanding some of their current mining sites in Florida.

So what can we do? First, we can demand our government to curb mining site expansions and force the start of the breakdown of phosphogypsum stacks. Second, we need to look into how best to reclaim the land used for these sites. Currently they are open sores on the Florida landscape. Third, we need to start a discussion about farming without a cheap source of fertilizer to replenish phosphates in the soil. The shortage is coming regardless, and we have to be ready for it. Alternatives to mineral phosphates include the use of animal manures, growing tap-rooted cover crops that bring phosphorus up from the subsoil, using bone-meal sources, and even using human waste as fertilizer.

These changes won’t happen by themselves. Though the federal government has come down on Mosaic, the Florida government has been woefully inadequate at curbing the phosphate giant’s destructive practices on the state’s ecosystem, probably due to the size of the industry and the economic clout they hold for as long as there is phosphate to be mined here. The people of Florida need to stand up and demand change. For many, this discussion has always been. Since this past year’s state of environmental emergency, the discussion has expanded.

Wondering what the water used to look like…

Is there something you can do right now? Yes! Sign up and subscribe to Lieutenant Planet’s video blog. You can support the initiative as we attend rallies, clean up the environment, and raise the alarm about environmental crises around America. And you can watch us as we go as an honorary Planeteer!