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.

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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!