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A Closer Look Into Florida’s Phosphate Mining Industry
A brief history
Phosphate is a non-renewable natural resource that is obtained by mining phosphate-containing minerals. Florida phosphate rock deposits are believed to have arisen when seawater conditions caused dissolved phosphorus to solidify and form the sediments that are mined today (1). Marine life also played a big role in the formation of sediment deposits.
A captain in the Army Corps of Engineers (5) first discovered River Pebble Phosphate along the Peace River in Florida in the late 19th century. Phosphate mining began soon after. The Florida miners had no mechanized excavation equipment. This means that early mining was done by hand using wheelbarrows, carts, pickaxes and shovels. The drudgery of mining was slow and labor intensive, but the phosphate pebbles showed promise. Interest in this pebble increased and the phosphate industry was born. The early 20th century brought mechanized excavation equipment like steam shovels to Florida’s phosphate mines, but steam shovels did not last long.
Draglines were first introduced in the 1920s and their use has increased ever since. Dragline technology continued to advance, leading miners to move from river cobbles to earth and hard rock cobble phosphates and then to extract the finer grained “phosphate matrix”.
The phosphate matrix deposits (4) are found over a large area of west-central Florida known as “Bone Valley”. In 1900, it took 3 to 4 years to cultivate 15 acres with picks and shovels. In the early days of small draglines, about 5 acres were mined in a year. As the size of the draglines increased, they could operate 500 to 600 acres per year. Conservatively, today’s draglines are capable of completely destroying 50 acres per month.
Phosphate Mining Process Florida’s phosphate ore (matrix) is found approximately 40 feet below the earth’s surface. The matrix is closely tied to one of Florida’s true treasures, the aquifer systems. Phosphate rock is mined and then manufactured through the fertilizer manufacturing process. A typical Florida phosphate mine receives approximately 9,000 tons of phosphate rock per acre of land. Huge draglines are brought in that can remove Florida soil from the surface up to 100 feet in order to remove the entire matrix “field”.
The phosphate industry refers to the removed earth as “overburden”. The rest of us call it orange groves, cattle pastures, the old swimming hole, watersheds, aquifer systems, rivers, natural springs, etc.
Once the overburden has been removed, the draglines can then “scour” the matrix, which consists of equal parts phosphate rock, clay and sand. The matrix (2) is then dumped into huge slurry pits where literally countless volumes of fresh, clean water from the aquifer are used.
The water comes from the newly crushed aquifers under the mighty dragline. Billions of gallons of fresh Florida water are released and used in high pressure water cannons to create slurry which can then be pumped to the enrichment plant, which can be up to 10 miles away.
At the beneficiation plant, phosphate is separated from sand and clay. Then the toxic sludge is stored in huge clay settling ponds until countless amounts of water from the aquifer evaporates.
A by-product, called phosphogypsum, is slightly radioactive and therefore cannot be easily disposed of. The only thing miners can do with it is pile it up in mountainous piles next to processing plants. Florida is such a flat state that the 150-foot-tall “gypsum piles” are typically the highest point on the landscape for miles around. They contain large pools that can be as large as a square mile of highly acidic sewage.
It’s no surprise that mining and mineral processing facilities generate more toxic and hazardous waste than any other industrial sector. (4) Reducing the environmental impacts of the operations of large fertilizer manufacturers is a national priority for the EPA.
The United States produces the most phosphate (2) in the world, while Morocco and China rank second and third respectively. Phosphate reserves are found in central Florida, North Carolina, Utah and Idaho. Florida currently provides approximately 75% of the national phosphate fertilizer supply and approximately 25% of the global supply. Follow the money Florida’s phosphate deposits today are the basis of an $85 billion industry that provides the lion’s share of the phosphate consumed in the United States. Of the industry’s $85 billion worth, only a few million dollars are spent on the local communities where the mines are located. Some have called it a boon to local communities. However, the phosphate industry seems like 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 called “Bone Valley”.
This $85 billion phosphate producing area is located in the middle of one of Florida’s greatest natural treasures called aquifer systems or “groundwater”. These aquifer systems can be compared to beehives, where the aquifer system is the hive and the water replaces the honey.
Aquifer systems are considered the foundation of all of Florida’s clean fresh water source. Today, this Central Florida phosphate region (3) includes Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, DeSoto, and Manatee counties. These same counties also contain huge watersheds, including the Alafia River Watershed, the Peace River Watershed, the Manatee River Watershed, the Little Manatee River Watershed, and the of the Myakka River.
As of this article, the phosphate industry continues to buy more land to extract the valuable phosphate in the watersheds mentioned above. Florida’s phosphate dilemma continues to escalate, causing greater irreparable environmental damage daily.
1. Florida Phosphate Research Institute (FIPR)
2. Florida DEP Mines and Minerals Regulations
3. Watershed data
4. Peace River Cumulative Impact Study
5. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Jacksonville District
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