FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Phosphate is a natural occurring mineral found in rock deposits throughout the United States. Phosphorus, the element found in phosphate rock, is an ideal fertilizer for the agriculture industry. By boosting nutrient deficient soil, phosphate helps to promote rapid plant growth. Phosphate rock is mined, processed into phosphoric acid and then used in the production of fertilizer and many everyday products such as soft drinks, food preservatives, household cleaning products, toothpaste and animal feed.
Phosphate is found all over the country, with profitable concentrations occurring in Florida and Idaho. Most of the phosphate in Florida is in the center of the state. The area is known as “Bone Valley.” Extensive mining has occurred in Polk and Hillsborough counties. Presently, the industry has targeted the Peace River watershed where 400,000 acres are already identified for strip mining.
In Florida, phosphate deposits are found close to the surface, about 30 or 40 feet below ground. The rock is extracted through a process called strip mining. Sandy topsoil, also known as overburden, is removed by large digging machines called draglines. The draglines can remove from 20-65 tons of overburden per dig, leaving 215 ft-wide paths behind. Along with the overburden goes all existing vegetation and wildlife habitat, as well. Once the phosphate rock is extracted, it is turned into a slurry mixture and sent to manufacturing plants for processing.
The industry has never offered a comprehensive plan for mining its remaining reserves. It is uncertain how many new mines will be built in the future, although we know that over 400,000 acres of land are slated for mining at some point. We also don't know when the industry expects to exhaust the resource completely. We do know that the Mosaic Company has recently proposed expanding its mining operations in the Peace River Basin. Where they will move after that, only time will tell.
We live downstream from proposed phosphate mining sites. If the Mosaic Company expands its operations in the Peace River Basin, our quality of life will be affected. This is because the mining is planned in the headwaters of Horse Creek, a tributary to the Peace River, which supplies drinking water to more than 150,000 people in our area. The Peace River feeds into the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary, which is key to our tourism industry, an active fishing industry and many recreational opportunities like boating and bird-watching. Charlotte Harbor generates nearly $1 billion annually for the tourism industry each and every year. By contrast, the phosphate industry provides only about $500 million.
The risk of spills and accidents is very real. Florida has a long history of catastrophes that have wreaked havoc on water quality and wildlife, and no matter how careful a mining company may be, accidents do happen. The slightly radioactive waste clay from the mining process is stored in clay settling areas (CSAs). In 2004, Hurricane Frances dumped so much rain on a Cargill Crop Nutrition (now Mosaic) site that a CSA dam broke and millions of gallons of toxic clay waste spilled into the environment. Downstream, the mess smothered crab traps and impacted fisheries.
Phosphate strip mining dramatically alters the soil and water quality, vegetation, and wildlife habitat of a mine site. Mining activities change the landform and leave clay settling ponds, which dominate the landscape. Because the mine site is mostly made up of this nutrient-poor clay, invasive plants often take over and limit the chance that native vegetation will reestablish itself. Real reclamation takes lifetimes, not years.