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Guest Opinion

Mosaic’s Toxic Assets


On Monday evening, March 25, a fire broke out at the Mosaic Riverview fertilizer plant and rapidly went out of control. In classic Mosaic PR style, Jackie Barron, Mosaic spokesperson, described it as a “brush fire” started during “routine maintenance,” which all the media ran with. She assured the public that there was no danger to the public or the environment. She was trying to say, Move along, nothing to see here.

Unfortunately, at this 100-year-old plant, the ground was littered with sections of very large heavy-gauge PVC pipe. In aerial video, the burning pipes can be seen clearly as straight lines of flame that couldn’t be put out because PVC burns hot and because there was “very little in the way of hydrants inside,” according to a Hillsborough FD spokesman. After four and a half hours, the fire had not been contained.

Mosaic also floated the concept that it was “not a plant fire,” another classic Mosaic framing job. In the many videos taken by a swarm of news media, one can plainly see plant buildings in full conflagration and fires raging inside the plant perimeter. Mosaic is telling us to disbelieve what we see with our own two eyes. Move along, nothing to see here.

The problem with burning PVC is what it turns into as it burns. The massive plumes of black smoke were rich in dioxins, one of the most deadly and toxic substances on Earth, the ingredient of Agent Orange that caused so much long-term injury and premature death among the soldiers and airmen who came in contact with it. Dioxin is from the same family as DDT and PCBs—chlorinated hydrocarbons that penetrate the body’s defenses by mimicking our hormones’ molecular structure.

Dioxin, like DDT and PCBs, has been reclassified as a “legacy toxin,” one that could never be cleaned up but has been weathering and breaking down in nature since production was banned or curtailed in the late 1970s. There is no dioxin per se in the chemical makeup of PVC—polyvinyl chloride—but it is formed in chemical reactions under extreme heat and enters the atmosphere like an angry ghost from the past. Dioxin is a health threat in exposure as low as parts per billion. Those billowing clouds of black smoke rising from the Mosaic fertilizer plant may be coming back to haunt the Tampa Bay area in years to come.

It is ironic that a product as seemingly benign as plant fertilizer can be so astonishingly dangerous—even lethal—to produce. The phosphate industry has been dogged for a hundred years by widespread cancers and heart disease in humans and animals. Shoddy and primitive manufacturing processes release toxins and acids via contaminated surface waters, groundwater, and aquifers, and in the air we breathe. The principal waste product of fertilizer manufacture—phosphogypsum—produced at a staggering rate of 5 tons per 1 ton of saleable product, is too hazardous and radioactive to be reused anywhere, so it must be piled up in mountains—gypstacks—that dot the Florida landscape, some 24 of them. They are the highest landforms in this flat state

Mosaic and the phosphate industry have an unbroken record of deadly spills and accidents that rival or exceed the worst environmental disasters in the nation’s history. Massive spills of contaminated water flood down the area’s rivers killing everything in their path. The mishandling of toxic waste was so acute that the EPA had to step in to force Mosaic to accept a Consent Decree guiding the long-term management of toxic assets. And perhaps most ominous of all, the steady flow of toxic waste, concentrations diluted by adding water, that flow every day down our rivers and into the groundwater. Sinkholes.

It is past time for Florida to demand an end to phosphate production, retrain the 3,000 employees and focus on things that matter: health, education, sustainable economic development, agriculture, tourism, and the healthy environment that is their foundation.

Andy Mele, MS
Peace Myakka Waterkeeper

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  • Cat L

    There are lists of ways to make fertilizer without destroying anything. It frustrates me to no end that Mosaic is rips up the ground and then creates toxic waste for the future generations. They destroyed a lot next to my friends house and caused her pond to empty, repeatedly.

    Wednesday, April 24 Report this