Fertilizer giant Mosaic Co. is paying tens of millions of dollars to patch a central Florida sinkhole and monitor for hazardous runoff, an incident that has heightened environmental concerns involving an industry critical to the U.S. food supply.
“This is a very unfortunate event and one we certainly wouldn’t have wanted to happen to us,” Mosaic Chief Executive Joc O’Rourke said in an interview this month.
The 240-foot-deep hole opened beneath a pile of mining waste at Mosaic’s plant in Mulberry, Fla., about 30 miles east of Tampa, in late August and drained contaminated water into an aquifer that provides drinking water for communities as far north as southern Georgia.
The company in early November said it would spend some $60 million to seal hole with concrete and pump the contaminated water out of the aquifer. Mosaic has also guaranteed Florida $40 million if it fails to take actions like plugging the hole and monitoring nearby drinking-water wells through 2018.
“We take our obligation to our community extremely seriously,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “I have great faith that we will right the issue and ultimately our contribution to society will be much greater than the impacts.”
The phosphate fertilizer that helped nourish the record U.S. corn and soybean harvests this year is made from mining millions of tons of mineral-rich earth. Environmentalists say the wastewater and towering mountains of refuse left behind by the fertilizer-manufacturing process take too big a toll.
At Mosaic’s plant in Mulberry, millions of gallons of acidic water created during fertilizer production spilled into the aquifer, along with unknown quantities of phosphogypsum, a mildly radioactive fertilizer byproduct.
“Phosphate production does enormous damage even when everything goes right,” said Bradley Marshall, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental-law group. He said the porous limestone surrounding the local water table car easily allow pollutants to spread.
“The Florida aquifer is like Swiss cheese,” he said.
Mosaic said water in the aquifer moves slowly, allowing the company to retrieve the contaminated water before it flows off its property.
Mosaic has had trouble with mining waste before. Last year, the company struck a deal worth more than $800 million with regulators to clean up hazardous waste from its operations in Louisiana and Florida.
In September, residents near Mosaic’s Mulberry sinkhole sued to hold the company responsible for potential drinking-well contamination. Days later, Governor Rick Scott ordered Florida’s environmental protection department to issue an emergency rule requiring businesses and local governments to inform the public and the department within 24 hours of a pollution incident.
Samples from more than 900 private wells nearby show no effects from the spill, the state environment department said.
The Mosaic facility processes phosphate rock from a swath of central Florida known as Bone Valley for its fossil beds that harbor the mineral. Florida supplies roughly 70% of the phosphate rock for U.S. fertilizers. Manufacturing fertilizer leaves behind mounds of refuse called phosphogypsum stacks—or gyp stacks—which pockmark the landscape. Collectively, they cover thousands of acres and each can reach 500 feet high.
“Each is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Beverly Griffiths, chairwoman of Sierra Club Florida’s phosphate committee. The Sierra Club implored the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to freeze new mining permits until the industry’s effects are better understood.
A sinkhole opened in 1994 under the same gyp stack in Mulberry, then owned by IMC Global Inc. Mosaic said the sinkhole was repaired at the time and that no other work was needed once they took over the facility. Mosaic said contamination didn’t escape the property then, either.
Another Florida fertilizer maker, Mulberry Corp., filed for bankruptcy and abandoned a plant in 2001, leaving officials to pump wastewater onto a barge and dump it in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2009, another sinkhole emptied more than 90 million gallons of hazardous wastewater into the Florida aquifer, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
Environmentalists said the latest breach validates their warnings about phosphate mining’s dangers. Some want more regulation. Some want to stop fertilizer production completely.
Brian Birky, executive director at the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute, said the U.S. can’t do without the fertilizer mined there. Over the past half-century, the U.S. has seen an increase in the use of phosphate-based fertilizer as well as high-tech seeds and equipment, pushing crop yields ever higher.
Mosaic’s Mr. O’Rourke said consumers benefit from the low food prices those yields make possible. He said U.S.-made fertilizer will be necessary to produce the calories to feed a booming global population.
“If you want to feed eight to nine billion people, you have to do it using mined and manufactured fertilizers,” he said. He expects phosphate mining in Florida to continue for at least 40 more years.
“The idea of 40 more years of mining in central Florida is revolting,” said Jacki Lopez, staff attorney and director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Florida.
“It’s radioactive waste,” Ms. Lopez said. “Where does all that go?”
POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Some residents who live near the massive sinkhole at Mosaic’s New Wales Plant are worried about their well water.
Recent test results show they should be concerned because of high levels of radioactive material. What is not clear is whether the Mosaic sinkhole, which dropped 215 million gallons of radioactive water into the Florida aquifer, has anything to do with it.
Mosaic – and some experts – say it’s possible the radioactivity was already present in some of these wells. They said it could have been caused by by “natural geologic processes.” Testing so far, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, show the contaminated water has been captured exactly the way it should be.
A DEP spokeswoman said 8 On Your Side an email that said test results do not show that contaminants from the New Wales plant are showing up in the well water. There are certain characteristics from the New Wales water that are not showing up in the well water, leading the state to conclude the harmful materials in the water are unrelated to the sinkhole. The state official wrote:
“The ongoing monitoring onsite at the New Wales facility continues to show no movement of process water away from the sinkhole location. Process water is only being detected in the recovery well samples to date, which indicates that the recovery well is working as expected and capturing process water. In this geographic region of Florida, levels of gross alpha that are above the drinking water standard are often associated with natural geologic processes. In other cases, they may be related to the construction of the water well itself. ”
But resident Jennifer Psait isn’t sure she’s buying that. She points to a delay in Mosaic notifying residents about the problems.
One of two wells on Bob Glaze’s property has so much radium in the brown water that he shut it off – out of fear. Psait is Glaze’s next-door tenant. She shares his two wells. Psait is worried about her three children who, until recently, drank and bathed in the water
“I’m not a chemist, or a chemistry student,” she said. “I think that’s pretty bad.”
Water tests show radium levels of 52.01 picocuries per liter – that’s more than five times the acceptable standard. Psait is concerned about the lack of information from Mosaic officials. And she’s leery of what they do tell her, since the company wasn’t forthcoming, at first, when the sinkhole opened in late August.
“The thing I really don’t respect about them is that they knew that had happened, even when they had coordinated with the legislature and they didn’t report it to the public. They only reported it when it started getting leaked,” Psait said.
The Mosaic sinkhole dropped more than 215 million gallons of radioactive water into the Florida aquifer. The company has tested 763 nearby wells and say 10 show water that’s not safe to drink. But the company takes no responsibility for this, saying the radioactive materials are just a coincidence.
DEP officials say they are trying to contact all of the residents with wells that showed contaminated water and will assist those residents in determining how to fix their water issues. In the meantime, Mosaic continues to deliver drinking water to residents who request it.
Mosaic officials claim that 215 million gallons of contaminated water was sucked down into the Floridan aquifer system through a massive sinkhole underneath their phosphogypsum stack at the company’s New Wales fertilizer plant in Mulberry, Florida. A closer look at both the evidence and Mosaic’s history suggest this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.
David Jellerson, senior director for environmental and phosphate projects at Mosaic, says he is confident no contaminants will migrate offsite. He claims Mosaic’s monitoring wells will capture the fugitive chemical mixture and that there is “no risk to the public.”
Mosaic officials first reported the breach to the public three weeks after they claim two workers—said to be monitoring the fluid levels in the stack—noticed the drop, indicating a problem. It was then, the company claims, that pumps were installed to retrieve the remaining fluid in the stack in search of the calamity’s origin.
BARTOW — Mosaic Co. officials apologized Tuesday morning for failing to inform the public in a timely manner that contaminated water from its plant had been dumped into the Floridan Aquifer.
“We deeply regret we didn’t come forward sooner,” said Walt Precourt, senior vice president of phosphate for the company. “Any explanation about why we didn’t (come forward) would ring hollow.”
The leak occurred after a 45-foot wide, 300-foot deep sinkhole opened under a gypsum stack at its plant in Mulberry.
POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — A massive sinkhole on top of a Mosaic gypsum stack near Mulberry allowed millions of gallons of contaminated water to flow into the Floridan Aquifer.
Eagle 8 flew over the huge chasm in the earth and spotted a cascading waterfall in the middle of what looks like a moonscape. The is happening in the New Wales plant off Highway 640, south of Mulberry.
The sinkhole opened up almost three weeks ago. Since then, about 215 million gallons of contaminated water have drained into the aquifer. The sinkhole is about 40 feet across. It’s depth is unknown.
It sits right in the middle of a massive gypsum stack. Gypsum comes out of the plant after the company produces phosphate fertilizers and animal feed ingredients.
On Aug. 27 workers monitoring water levels discovered a drop. “When it was first noticed, we installed pumping systems to move water out of that compartment on the gypsum stack, to recover the water,” said David Jellerson, Mosaic’s director of environment and phosphate projects.
The water is contaminated with phosphoric acid and is slightly radioactive. Not all of it is being caught by pumps.
You wouldn’t want to drink it, but so far, Mosaic engineers don’t believe the water is making it to private wells.
Please watch and help and engage with our fellow Floridians in North Florida.
Friday April 29th, at 6:30pm workshop in Bradford County on the mining, for citizens to ask questions, provide testimony and gather information from the attendees.
Public comments will be heard at both meetings so please attend and show your support!
We want to make people aware of the reality of phosphate strip mining that has already destroyed over thousands of acres in Peace River Heartland. Located in DeSoto County on US 17 South near Nocatee, Florida. Please visit and follow for the most up-to-date information concerning your community.
Cover Crops, a Farming Revolution With Deep Roots in the Past
By STEPHANIE STROM – February 6, 2016
When Mark Anson came home with his hair on fire after a seminar on the seemingly soporific topic of soil health, his younger brother, Doug, was skeptical.
What had Mark lit up was cover crops: fields of noncash crops like hairy vetch and cereal rye that act on soil like a nourishing facial after the harvest.
Mark, 60, and his two brothers, together with assorted sons and sons-in-law, run Anson Farms, a big commercial soybean and corn operation in Indiana and Illinois. Concern about the soil quality of the family’s fields had nagged at him for some time. “Our corn was wilting when temperatures hit 103 degrees,” he said, and such heat isn’t so unusual in the summer. “I felt like I had a gorilla on my shoulder.” What he learned about the benefits of cover crops gave him hope.
But to Doug, planting some noncommercial crops seemed an antiquated practice, like using a horse-drawn plow. Cover crops had long been replaced by fertilizers. Still, he shared his brother’s concern about their soil. Its texture was different, not as loamy as it had once been, and a lot of it was running off into ditches and other waterways when it rained.
So in 2010 the family decided to humor Mark by sowing some 1,200 acres, which Mark describes as highly eroded farmland, with wheat cleanings and cereal rye. Additionally, they spread some cover crops to eroded areas in a few fields.
The next spring, Doug had to admit that the soil texture on that strip was better. And the water that ran off it during a rainstorm was clear, a sign that the roots of the cover crops were anchoring valuable topsoil in place.
But Doug didn’t become a believer until 2013, when the family was grappling with a terrible drought. “In the part of a field where we had planted cover crops, we were getting 20 to 25 bushels of corn more per acre than in places where no cover crops had been planted,” he said. “That showed me it made financial sense to do this.”
Now some 13,000 of the 20,000 acres that the family farms across nine counties are planted with cover crops after harvesting, and farmers around them are beginning to embrace the practice.
Cover crops are coming back in other areas of the country, too. The practice of seeding fields between harvests not only keeps topsoil in place, it also adds carbon to the soil and helps the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive.
These properties have led philanthropies like the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to underwrite research on cover crops, while Monsanto, together with the Walton Family Foundation, recently put up the money to support the Soil Health Partnership, a five-year project of the National Corn Growers Association to identify, test and measure the impact of cover cropping and other practices to improve soil health.
Cover cropping is still used only by a small minority of farmers. When the Agriculture Department asked for the first time about cover cropping for its 2012 Census of Agriculture report, just 10.3 million acres — out of about 390 million total acres of farmland sown in crops — on 133,124 farms were planted with cover crops. The next census won’t be done until 2017, but experts say that the practice has spread. In an annual survey of about 1,200 farmers, the mean acreage reported as being sown in cover crops was 259 in 2014. That was double the mean reported by respondents in 2010, though results are not directly comparable because different farmers may have been involved in the surveys, said a spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, a federal government program, which conducted the survey.
“We’ve never seen anything taken up as rapidly as using cover crops,” said Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department.
Interest in cover crops is coming from buyers, too. Dan Barber, a prominent chef who uses locally grown foods, has championed incorporating cover crops like clover and millet into cuisine as a way of encouraging farmers to grow them.
The Blue Ox Malthouse in Maine was established to coax farmers there to grow barley as a cover crop, which the company then turns into malt that is sold to the state’s craft beer industry. Half a dozen farmers are producing good-quality barley as a cover crop, and others “are interested in turning the grains they’ve been growing as cover crops into something there’s a value-added market for,” said Joel Alex, Blue Ox’s founder and maltster.
One measure of how rapidly the practice is growing is the booming demand for cover crop seeds. Keith Berns, a fourth-generation family farmer in central Nebraska, started making cover-crop seed mixtures in 2010, and the business “just kind of took off,” Mr. Berns said.
He and his brother, Brian, turned what started as a hobby into a thriving enterprise. This year, Green Cover Seed, their company, will sell enough seed to cover 500,000 acres in cover crops.
Last fall, the Berns brothers were recognized as White House Champions of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture. “We have been kind of surprised at how fast our business has grown,” Keith said. “The reason is that because it’s working agronomically and doing what it’s advertised to do.”
Modern farming practices like applying fertilizer and herbicides have helped farmers increase yields and reduced labor, but they have also unintentionally interfered with root systems and disrupted underground microbial activity and insect life that are vital to plant and soil health. (Many farmers deploying cover crops continue to use herbicides, although often less than they did in the past, but they often can do without fertilizers.)
“We’ve concentrated on the physical and chemical aspects of farming but not the biological,” said Dan DeSutter, who farms 5,000 acres near Attica, Ind.
Mr. DeSutter began fooling around with cover crops about 17 years ago, after Purdue University used one of his fields for research trials. One spring he was repairing a drainage tile in the test field and came across the deep, webbed root system that some Oregon ryegrass had put into the soil.
“I thought to myself, I have been pulling the guts out of my tractor to remove compaction 14 inches deep with a ripper,” Mr. DeSutter said, “and this plant has just bored a system of micropores four feet deep between cash crops all on its own.”
The roots he stumbled across had created a natural aeration system that helped conserve water and trap nutrients in the soil, which would otherwise be prone to leaching. “That was the aha! moment,” he said.
Today, all 5,000 acres he farms are sown after the harvest of corn and soy with a mixture of as many as 12 different crops, including sunflower, sorghum, buckwheat, turnips and hairy vetch, each of which delivers a different benefit. Most die off in the winter and decompose, leaving behind a rich layer of organic matter that gradually sinks into the earth. Farmers use a planter or seed drill to punch the seeds for their cash crops into the decaying cover crop.
Before cultivation, Indiana was blanketed in prairie grasses and forest, and the carbon content of the soil was as high as 10 percent in places. Today, after decades of tillage, which moves carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, and monocropping, the level on many farms is below 2 percent, Mr. Fisher said. Cover crops restore organic matter back into the soil, at a rate of about 1 percent every five years.
“As we put carbon back into the soil, it gives us a bigger tank to store water naturally,” Mr. DeSutter said. “This is one way we build resilience into the system.”
The adoption of cover cropping has been especially rapid in Indiana — about one million of the 12.5 million acres of farmland there are planted with cover crops between harvests. A strong collaboration between Purdue University and state and federal farm services gave birth to the Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, a program that offers education and research to farmers in the state.
Rob Myers, director of extension programs for the north central region of SARE, and a professor at the University of Missouri, said Maryland also ranked high in the use of cover crops. The state reimburses farmers for the cost of cover crop seed and has been informing them about the impact that fertilizer runoff has on Chesapeake Bay.
Despite the support for cover cropping in Indiana, there is still resistance to change. Farmers are notoriously reluctant to offer their neighbors advice about farming, and cover cropping carries with it an implicit criticism of practices — reliance on fertilizers and pesticides, and so forth — that farmers for the last generation have used to increase productivity and reduce work.
“All those old guys sitting around shooting the breeze at the feed store get real quiet when I pull up,” Mr. DeSutter said, only half in jest.
Neighbors have made pointed comments about his “messy” fields. The fields sown with a cover crop cocktail are often blanketed in dying, decaying and thriving plants at the same time. In December, spindly black stalks, the remnants of sunflowers, shot up here and there from one of Mr. DeSutter’s fields, which were covered in a yellowing broadleaf and bright green hairy vetch.
But the biggest obstacle to more farmers adopting cover crops is the lack of data and research on their benefits. “Fewer of our neighbors think we’re crazy than when we started planting cover crops, but there’s still a lot of skepticism out there,” said Rodney Rulon, whose family farms 6,200 acres in northeastern Indiana and plants about four-fifths of them with cover crops.
Rulon Enterprises, the family business, has begun collecting data on some of its fields. He has found, for instance, an increase in organic matter and higher corn yields — an average of 12.8 bushels an acre more in one of his cover-cropped fields, said Mr. Rulon, who shared some of this data in December at the 70th Corn & Sorghum Seed Research Conference.
“You really start seeing a difference in your soil within two or three years,” Mr. Rulon said.
The Rulons spend about $100,000 a year on cover crop seed, or about $26 an acre. But they also saved about $57,000 on fertilizer they no longer needed, and bigger yields mean about $107,000 in extra income.
Including the value of improved soil quality, less erosion and other improvements, Mr. Rulon estimates that Rulon Enterprises gets about $244,000 of net economic benefit from cover crops annually, or a little more than $69 an acre.
The federal government is mulling ways to persuade farmers to adopt cover cropping. There is a small subsidy system; Rulon Enterprises, for instance, gets $40,000 to help offset the cost of cover crops and support other conservation practices.
But Mr. Rulon and Mr. DeSutter believe that landowners are the real key to taking cover crops mainstream. Most farmers work some fields leased from absentee owners, and thus have less incentive to maintain and invest in improving soil quality on that land.
“Why should landowners see the value of their land diminished because the soil on it has become unhealthy?” said Mr. DeSutter. “I’d like to see landowners give preferential treatment to farmers who are working to improve the value of the land they lease by using cover crops.”
Correction: February 14, 2016
An article last Sunday about the resurgence of cover-cropping as an agricultural practice described incorrectly the effects of so-called no-till farming, in which farmers plant into the residue of a previous crop rather than tilling it in. It can reduce soil erosion; it does not increase it.