Florida: The Sinkhole State

Most readers are in the dark about one of Florida's most secretive, regulated and wealthy industries: mining. In other states, mining is defined by mineral extraction. In Florida, mining involves scraping the surface layer of the earth; excavating ancient fossil bedrock for limestone, to make cement, asphalt and concrete, and phosphate derivatives, for agricultural fertilizer.

Mosaic is the nation's largest producer of the latter. Its multi-billion dollar revenues in Florida are focused on an area to the east of Tampa/ St. Petersberg where one mine recently drained over 200 million gallons of highly acidic, "slightly radioactive" industrial waste water through a sinkhole that opened beneath a retention lake on top of a waste pit. Here is how large the operations are in the region: the mining area is 3/4 the spatial area of Rhode Island.

Recently, Jaclyn Lopez wrote an OPED for the Tampa Bay Times: "It's time to rein in Florida's phosphate strip mining". "Florida is starting to wake up to its massive phosphate mining problem," she begins. "Starting?" Hardly.

Since at least the early 1990's, Florida environmentalists pleaded with the US Army Corps of Engineers -- the nation's permitting authority for wetlands destruction, and chief agency responsible for regulating mining activities in Florida -- to conduct a regional aquifer study in exactly the area where the massive sinkhole has now exposed Florida's drinking water to pollution.

In other words, we knew what was bound to happen in North Florida as water supplies were drained from sandy aquifers. The science of sinkholes is not complicated.
Dr. Sydney Bacchus, who offered expert witness testimony for many civic and conservation groups during these decades, is the unsung hero and sentinel of mining's threats to North Florida's aquifers.

Dr. Bacchus asked, on behalf of her clients, in 2002 for ... "A comprehensive regional Cumulative Impacts Analysis ... that analysis must include all of the cumulative impacts to the regional Floridan aquifer system, including the surface water resources that are inextricably linked to the Floridan aquifer system." In 2005, the State of Florida slapped her with a "cease and desist order" and threatened her with criminal charges in response to formal complaints by consultants to the mining industry that she was not licensed as a "professional geologist" and therefore should not be allowed to testify about adverse impacts of mining at public hearings. At significant personal cost, Dr. Bacchus sued the State of Florida in federal court and won, for violating her right to free speech.

The comprehensive analysis Dr. Bacchus' clients requested was never performed. In the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, a private corporation trying to save a few hundred thousand dollars created billions of dollars of liabilities for shareholders. In the case of Florida aquifer crisis, the refusal of Florida's political leadership to hold the mining industry to account has created an unlimited liability for taxpayers.

Mosaic, like Big Sugar in its battle to retain the industry's privileges to pollute both Florida coasts, is trying to calm the public, claiming no threat to drinking water supplies from the disappearance of 200 million gallons (plus whatever volume is vanished through rainfall now pouring "slightly radioactive" and highly acidic tailings into the earth). It is a problem like FPL's at Turkey Point, where massive failure of its cooling canal system is radiating pollution beneath populated areas of south Miami-Dade and a national park.

The Mosaic problem is also like Japan's Fukushima. There, public confidence in government and corporate authority has been shaken to its bones by the fact that the nuclear reactor's fissile materials have "disappeared" into the earth.

All these problems point to hubris. All these problems -- byproducts of ingenious ways to accumulate wealth and power -- could have been prevented by effective government regulation.

It is precisely the environmental regulatory function of the federal government that has been under continuous attack since the nation's foundational laws were passed in the early 1970s.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, under pressure from state and federal lawmakers who are quick to bend to the will of lobbyists and campaign funders from the mining industry, has denied and obfuscated the scale of the problem much like the Japanese government with Fukushima.

Groups like Ms. Lopez' Florida Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, NRDC and Friends of the Everglades have tried to use federal courts to bring polluters to justice.

These issues -- of regulatory failure -- are critical to the question; who will Florida choose to be the next president of the United States? Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? State voters also have a choice with the state legislature, so they don't have the earth pulled out from under their feet.