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A Closer Look Into Florida’s Phosphate Mining Industry
A brief history
Phosphate is a natural, non-renewable resource that is obtained by mining phosphate-containing minerals. Florida’s phosphate deposits are thought to have formed when seawater conditions caused dissolved phosphorus to solidify and form the sediment that is mined today (1). Marine life also played a large role in sediment formation.
An Army Corps of Engineers captain (5) first discovered River Pebble Phosphate along the Peace River in Florida in the late nineteenth century. Phosphate mining began soon after. Florida miners had no mechanized mining equipment. This means that early mining was done by hand using wheels, carts, picks and shovels. Mining was slow and labor-intensive, but the phosphate rock showed real promise. Interest in this pebble increased and the phosphate industry was born. The early twentieth century brought mechanized mining equipment such as steam shovels to Florida’s phosphate mines, but steam shovels did not last long.
Drag lines were first introduced in the 1920s and their use has increased since then. Dragline technology continued to advance, leading miners to move from river pebbles to land pebbles and hard rock phosphates, and then to mining the finer grained “phosphate matrix”.
Deposits of phosphate matrix (4) occur in a wide area of west and central Florida known as “Bone Valley”. In 1900 it took 3 to 4 years to clear 15 acres with picks and shovels. In the early days of the small draglines, about 5 acres were mined per year. As the draglines grew, they were able to harvest 500 to 600 acres a year. Conservatively, today’s draglines are capable of completely destroying 50 acres per month.
The Phosphate Mining Process Florida’s phosphate ore (matrix) is located about 40 feet below the earth’s surface. The matrix lies intertwined with one of Florida’s true treasures, the aquifer systems. Phosphate rock is mined and then produced through a fertilizer manufacturing process. A typical Florida phosphate mine recovers about 9,000 tons of phosphate rock per acre of land. Huge draglines are brought in and can remove the Florida soil from the surface down 100 feet to remove the entire matrix “field”.
The phosphate industry refers to the removed soil as “overburden”. The rest of us call it orange groves, cattle pastures, old swimming pools, watersheds, aquifers, rivers, natural springs, etc.
Once the overburden is removed, the draglines can “rip off” the matrix, which is composed of equal parts phosphate rock, clay, and sand. The matrix (2) is then dumped into huge sludge pits where literally countless volumes of fresh clean aquifer water are used.
The water comes from newly crushed aquifers under the massive dragline. Billions of gallons of Florida’s fresh water are released and used in high-pressure water cannons to create sludge that can then be pumped to a water treatment plant that can be up to 10 miles away.
In the treatment plant, phosphate is separated from sand and clay. Then the toxic sludge is stored in huge clay settling tanks until untold amounts of water evaporate from the aquifer.
One byproduct, called phosphogypsum, is slightly radioactive, so it can’t be easily disposed of. All miners can do with it is stack it in mountainous piles next to processing plants. Florida is such a flat state that 150-foot-tall “gyp stacks” are usually the highest point in the landscape for miles. They contain large pools that can be as large as one square mile of highly acidic sewage.
Not surprisingly, mining and mineral processing facilities produce more toxic and hazardous waste than any other industrial sector. (4) Reducing the environmental impacts of the activities of large fertilizer manufacturers is a national priority for EPA.
The United States produces the most phosphate (2) in the world, while Morocco and China are in second and third place. Phosphate deposits are found in central Florida, North Carolina, Utah and Idaho. Florida currently provides approximately 75 percent of the nation’s supply of phosphate fertilizers and about 25 percent of the world’s supply. Follow the Money Today, Florida’s phosphate deposits are the backbone of an $85 billion industry that supplies the lion’s share of the phosphate consumed in the United States. Of the $85 billion industry, only a few million dollars are spent on the local communities where the mines are located. Some call it a boon to local communities. But the phosphate industry seems to be a bad neighbor. This is because they are “allowed” to leave their environmental disasters behind for local citizens to pay for. Interestingly, the phosphate mines in Central Florida are now referred to as “Bone Valley”.
This $85 billion phosphate production area is located in the middle of one of Florida’s greatest natural treasures, called aquifer systems. These aquifer systems can be compared to beehives, where the aquifer system is the hive and the water replaces the honey.
Water systems are considered the foundation for Florida’s entire supply of clean fresh water. Today, this Central Florida Phosphate Region (3) consists of Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, DeSoto and Manatee counties. These same counties also contain huge watersheds including the Alafia River Basin, the Peace River Basin, the Manatee River Basin, the Little Manatee River Basin, and the Myakka River Basin.
As of this article, the phosphate industry continues to purchase additional land for the mining of valuable phosphate in the aforementioned watersheds. Florida’s phosphate dilemma continues to escalate, causing more widespread irreparable damage to the environment on a daily basis.
1. Florida Institute of Phosphate Research (FIPR)
2. Florida DEP Minerals Regulation
3. Watershed data
4. Peace River Cumulative Impact Study
5. US Army Corps of Engineers – Jacksonville District
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