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 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.
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.
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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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!
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
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
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:
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
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
Vegetation/aesthetics – landscaping, litter removal, turf condition, and tree
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!
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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