Louisiana’s Most Unpopular Attraction: Cancer Alley

When people think Louisiana, they think of New Orleans and Mardi Gras, of raucous debauchery and drunkenness. They also may think of truly unique cuisine, music, and culture from a historically contested piece of land, handed back and forth between different European colonizers. Maybe they think of the mysterious swampland that covers much of the Mississippi River delta.

Louisiana indeed has all those things- But after staying and studying for longer than a vacation would allow, one begins to really see Louisiana’s dark side. It is a state full of desperation, hustling, struggle, toxicity, and death. And the state’s largest attraction? An 85-mile corridor of extreme environmental degradation and injustice between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along the Mississippi River, housing more than 150 large industrial plants and refineries for oil, natural gas, plastics, phosphate, and more, un-affectionately called Cancer Alley.

Cancer Alley has a population wherein around 20% of people live below the poverty line, and a suspiciously large amount of that population develops mysterious, toxicity-related illnesses and cancers. The poorest are more likely to live closest to these industrial giants, in places where literally everything is contaminated. In an industrialized country that refuses to provide its citizens with universal healthcare, environmental injustice is often a nail in the coffin for people in these communities.

The air here is polluted, often to the point where the stench from these factories is unbearable, and your eyes water and burn. A light coat of grime coats everything. The water is also polluted, both from accidental spills and intentional (and somehow legal) dumps of chemical and radioactive wastes into injection wells underground, where there is more an “Out of sight, out of mind” mentality rather than any guarantee those waste products won’t leach into the aquifer or the watershed at large. The toxins in the water then affect the seafood that many depend on, in bitter irony, for survival. The latest list of “Fish Consumption and/or Swimming Advisories” for Louisiana can be found here, along with an interactive map here.

Lobbying and corruption from some of the richest fossil fuel and other industrial giants in the world make all of this possible, in an area largely forgotten or given-up on. The EPA and the state tend to turn a blind eye to the area, saying everything is mostly safe. But most of those conclusions seem to be based on short-term standards, not long-term living situations. According to the CDC, Louisiana consistently ranks among the states with the highest rates of cancer, along with many other states along the Mississippi River.

And the problem keeps getting worse. As other companies and tycoons look to take advantage of this perfect spot for industrial building, supported by tax incentives, standards for self-reporting emissions, and a lack of real oversight, locals are not included in the conversation. With every new plant, property values drastically decrease, trapping many in an area that will, because of that same decrease in value, now get less funding for schools, medical facilities, police, and other necessities for a thriving community.

The long chain of transformative wealth that could have taken place since the time of institutionalized slavery has been stolen in Cancer Alley. African Americans have been trapped here at a much higher rate than whites, as much of that potentially transformative wealth was invested in family homes, passed down for generations, that are no longer worth enough to be considered an investment. Homes of sick factory workers with little opportunity and no options for healthcare. In Cancer Alley, though slavery was abolished long ago, it still blows in the wind, burning your eyes and blackening your lungs.

Carbon dioxide is a major GHG, but locally, is one of the least dangerous chemicals in the air.

Recently, Louisiana has continued in its steadfast jog towards the obliteration of its own communities and the health of their most vulnerable populations. The Department of Natural Resources announced earlier this month that it has approved the permit, against much local backlash, for the construction of a new plant in the 5th district of St. James Parish, in the middle of Cancer Alley. The permit goes to Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese company with a checkered environmental past in Baton Rouge and Texas, and well as Taiwan and Vietnam. Formosa will also get a $1.5 billion tax break to build its new plant through the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Permit, destroying another hundred acres of wetlands to do so.

Every single one of these factories and plants in Cancer Alley are bleeding sores on a body of pollution. What’s worse, every one of those sores is in more danger of bursting every year due to Climate Change. Hurricanes are becoming stronger and more frequent, and have the potential to rip these plants apart, spewing their insides everywhere. All of the pollution in the water that actually makes it out of the delta goes straight into the Gulf of Mexico, feeding red tides and expanding dead zones. In other states, injection wells are thought to be the cause of increasing seismic activity, which would be devastating here. Open and abandoned oil wells are scattered all over Louisiana as well, with nobody to close them because of lack of oversight and enforcement.

Cancer Alley, and Louisiana in general, is in desperate need of saving from the corruption that Big Money plays in its politics. Those at the top are destroying what is left of one of the most important hubs of trade and cultural diversity in American history. Cancer Alley is a social and environmental blight on the United States, barely containing itself from becoming a World Event scale environmental catastrophe.

At this point it seems that the only thing that can save a state so deep in a socioeconomic and environmental sinkhole would be sweeping federal green-initiative mandates targeting environmental injustice at the expense of environmental offenders.

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Fighting The Plastic Problem

You most likely see discarded single-use plastics lying around every day. In the city, they might be on the side of the road, in an alleyway, or falling out of an overfilled trashcan. On the shore, they are strewn all over the beach, and little pieces of plastic are hanging out inside most of the marine life. Farther out to sea, the Great Pacific Garbage patch is twice the size of Texas. In rural areas, plastics and Styrofoam get pushed around by the wind until they end up stuck in the brush, to slowly break apart into smaller pieces over the years. Even the peak of Mount Everest is covered in plastic trash.

Single-use plastics are a part of our every day life. Mass production of plastics began in the 1930’s, and many new kinds of plastic were invented and mass-produced in the coming decades. Plastics were lauded as the new, cheap, and effective medium of production. Polystyrene could be made into a solid form (like plasticware) or a foam (like Styrofoam), and revolutionized take-out in the food world. PVC started replacing metal pipes other building materials. Polypropylene alternatives replaced a lot of tools in the medical industry, and could be used to make dishwasher-safe plastic food containers. Finally, polyethylene became the most common plastic in the world, used primarily for single-use packaging, including plastic bags, wraps, and bottles.

Many plastics are synthetic and derived from petrochemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum). They take an incredibly long time to break down because their chemical makeup doesn’t easily interact with outside chemicals. So once a single-use plastic is made, it’s generally around for the long haul. And being derived from petrochemicals means that it takes limited natural resources from the Earth to be made in the first place, so plastics are a double-whammy of environmental degradation.

So how much plastic is out there? One estimate puts the total global mass-production of plastics at 8.3 BILLION metric tons, with 6.3 billion metric tons now being waste, accumulated in landfills or the environment at large. Only about 9% of the plastics ever produced have been recycled, and another 12% have been incinerated (which comes with its own environmental hazards).

To put it in perspective, the amount of plastic humanity has produced, mostly since 1950, would cover the entirety of Manhattan in trash about two MILES deep.

It was always known, by its very nature, that plastics would eventually smother the planet. But a blind eye was turned to its environmental impact due it’s cost-effectiveness. That’s right, plastics are just another limb on the cephalopodic body of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the petrochemical industry.

But now that this knowledge is mainstream, the question is, what can we do about it? Well thankfully, there are now a plethora of options:

  1. Recycle, recycle, recycle! Push your representatives in government for resolutions facilitating plastic recycling in your community. Many communities have implemented programs that give households recycling bins, free of cost, that are picked up the same as trash. And remember, no one person made this mess- Resolutions for recycling targeting large-scale businesses can potentially have a much bigger impact.
  2.  Opt for non-plastic options. This includes things like bringing your own bags to the grocery store, using a reusable water bottle instead of single-use bottles, and buying from bulk-markets to avoid plastic packaging.
  3. Spread the word about plastic alternatives! Bioplastics are a revolutionary industry, and replacing petrochemical plastics with biodegradable alternatives on a large scale would drastically slow down production of new plastic waste.

Sometimes movements like this can seem impossibly large. After all, plastic is literally everywhere, so is tweaking my lifestyle and talking about alternatives really going to make an impact? If you do it in the right way, ABSOLUTELY. And it becomes a much smaller problem with just a little bit of perspective:

First, it is important to understand that there is a fundamental flaw in market capitalism that nobody really talks about. Usually, the market is coerced by the “invisible hand” of supply and demand. But as you get to the poorer communities, that theory reaches its mathematical lower limit. When people don’t KNOW about, or can’t AFFORD something, then there is no DEMAND for it, at least as far as the market is concerned. This means there is no reason to SUPPLY it.

With contemporary economic inequality being as robust as the petrochemical industries profit margins, the only way to show market demand is to BE VOCAL about your demand. The world at large cannot afford to keep producing plastic waste as it is now- we will drown in it, and they will keep producing it until we do, because it’s CHEAP. But now that we have other cheap alternatives, we must make our voices heard in support of those alternatives whilst denouncing petrochemical plastics.

How do we make our voices heard? Well, just like your mama told you, actions speak louder than words. Those tweaks in your habits produce demand (or lack thereof) in the market. Becoming involved in your local community is another way to make your voice heard. Many, especially in the younger generations, view group gatherings at town halls as excruciatingly analog. But I will let you in on a little secret- That just means that if you are one of the few people that DO go to these meetings, you will usually have a much larger voice than you would expect. You will also find like-minded individuals who were passionate enough to take that leap with you, and from there an activist community is formed! Setting up cleanups in problem areas will beautify your community, and it is often easy to get local media outlets involved, helping to draw attention to the issue.

In the digital world, sharing content can have some impact, but CREATING content is much better, because it adds to the content pool to be shared and makes an issue larger. One ridiculously simple way to create content regarding single use plastics is by taking pictures of plastic trash with company labels on it and adding it to the hashtag #isthisyours on social media. Making this part of your daily routine can create a lot of noise, especially if you also tag your location.

These are things that everyone can do. The generations that exist today will determine the livability of our planet within the coming decades. We already live in a world of climate change, mass extinction, and rising oceans full of plastic. Our complacency will directly correlate with an early death in a toxic world for our children. Action is the only option.

We must fight for our planet, and we must take steps to hold the institutions that knowingly helped to cause these disasters accountable for their actions in such a way that the future of humanity will have something to look back on as they set the direction for the way forward.

Lieutenant Planet is a community-funded activism initiative. For more independent environmental journalism like this, sign up for the Lieutenant Planet email list! Also, visit our Support page!

A Defense of The Green New Deal

The Green New Deal. Most recently formally proposed by rising star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a lot of you have heard about it, and are already seeing opposition to it, especially among the GOP. Some of you may not be paying attention, thinking that this resolution is just an environmental initiative.

It’s not.

The Green New Deal is a sweeping reform of our democratic processes, financial institutions, and methods of promoting the values of equality, freedom, and the American Dream. It aims to effectively dismantle America’s forced slide into inequality, fascism, and corporate oligarchy. It is the culmination of progressive thought in the new millennium, wrapped up in a plan to promote sustainable practices and combat climate change by cutting pollution and emissions.

So why is there so much backlash? Because the GND also takes aim at the largest financial institutions in the country, and the world. Some of these institutions have helped put a lot of politicians in office, again not only here, but all over the globe- Corporate entities that have the power to start coups and overthrow governments, often using our own media and military through their ownership of our representatives and media conglomerates. The GND aims to break apart the clumps of power that have been allowed, in direct opposition to the wellbeing of the public, to consolidate behind the scenes over the last few decades.

And those powers are worried. Because all of this is wrapped up in a resolution that doesn’t directly call out any of these institutions.

What it does call for:

“Providing all people of the United States with-

  • High quality healthcare;
  • Affordable, safe, and adequate housing;
  • Economic security
  • Clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature.”

And also, to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers… [and] to invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century.’

What it targets, directly:

  • The stagnation of hourly wages since the seventies
  • Worsening socioeconomic mobility
  • The top 1%, relating to the accruing of 91% of gains after the Great Recession in 2008
  • Racial/gender wealth dividesInjustice against indigenous peoples and deindustrialized communities, the poor, and disabled
  • Fossil fuel research/expansion
  • Emissions and pollution sources
  • Anti-union groups –
  • Domestic and international monopolies

Who that worries/concerns:

  • Any large corporation that operates via a business plan that depends on low-paid labor
  • (Predatory) financial, medical, and insurance institutions
  • The elitist and prejudiced communities
  • Fossil fuel and other industries that try to use eminent domain and police power to push pipelines though disadvantaged communities or indigenous lands
  • Big banks, Big Pharma, Big Energy, Big Agriculture, and the MSM
  • Any other industry that hurts public health and wellbeing through pollution and emissions

So, this Green New Deal is bound to get backlash from these entities, and the representatives that they have in office. Goes along with the territory.

There are also, however, others that think the language is not enough. That it is too vague and lacks a specific roadmap. That it doesn’t propose a means of payment for its sweeping infrastructure overhaul. That it has no clear outline for a managed decline of fossil fuel production. But Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is playing a sly game of political poker.

You see, the Green New Deal already existed with far more prominent teeth, as part of the official platform for the Green Party during the November 2018 elections, and originally introduced by Jill Stein in the 2016 presidential elections. In other forms, it goes even farther back than that. So all those on the right that say it’s a leftist pipedream are immediately discredited by the simple fact that Ocasio-Cortez’s GND is actually fairly centrist.

To contrast, the Green Party’s version of the GND calls specifically for:

  1. Free quality healthcare and education, as well as complete student loan forgiveness.
  2. Creation of a federal bank that manages distressed properties and expands rental and home ownership assistance
  3. The right to affordable utilities
  4. Nationalizing the Federal Reserve and breaking up the big banks
  5. Establishing a 90% on bonuses for bailed-out bankers
  6. Supporting the formation of public banking systems that operate as non-profits
  7. Revoking corporate personhood
  8. Replacing big money control of election campaigns with public funding and equal access to airwaves
  9. Abolishing the Electoral College
  10. Repealing the Patriot Act
  11. Reducing military spending by 50%

The problem that Ocasio-Cortez’s GND is vague is protected by the fact that it was not introduced as a piece of legislation, but as a proposed resolution. It was designed to give the public and representatives something tangible to grapple with. And the fact that it addresses very real problems like climate change and socioeconomic injustice means that this version will age well, as these problems will only become more pressing. And as they do, this GND will pull public perception on environmental issues to a more progressive place. It will give the Green Party’s platform more exposure, whilst simultaneously highlighting the complete lack of any other kind of plan to address these issues.

The Green New Deal won’t be built in a day. But now it’s in the public eye, and it isn’t just a catchphrase anymore. It is a plan with steps toward environmental and economic sustainability that isn’t something that some other country is doing or that is impossible to do here. This proposal gives the public a real, tangible, and validated conceptual design for the future of the United States and all Americans.

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!