News And Updates
Published By: Jacksonville.com
Wells near White Springs in Hamilton County are being tested for contamination after 84 million gallons of water from a fertilizer plant flooded a sinkhole, a state spokeswoman said Sunday.
Tests so far haven't found any evidence of tainted water beyond the property of PCS Phosphate Company's Swift Creek chemical complex, said the spokeswoman, Dee Ann Miller of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Tests are also looking for water seeping into the Floridan aquifer.
PCS makes phosphate fertilizer at the complex east of US 41, about 10 miles northwest of White Springs. The complex is also used to stack phosphogypsum, a byproduct of processing phosphate ore.
The sinkhole affected one of five distinct cells the gypsum stack is divided into, said Mike Williams, a company spokesman.
An employee inspecting the stack discovered the hole Thursday and the company contacted state and local agencies. Williams said the area around the sinkhole has been sealed off, but work has continued at the rest of the complex, which employs about 700 people.
Miller said an initial estimate described the hole as being 100 feet across, narrowing to about 40 feet. Williams said an Orlando engineering firm is trying to establish the exact size of the hole and the way to fix it.
Water used in phosphate processing drained into the sinkhole, and at least part of it then flowed into wells that PCS uses for its operation.
Much of the land around the sinkhole is owned by PCS, and the nearest drinking water wells are about two miles away. Tests over the weekend didn't find any evidence of contamination at those, Miller said.
Tests to measure saltiness and acidity are being used as an immediate gauge of whether an underground plume of the spilled water has reached a well, Miller said.
Water samples are being checked for levels of radioactivity, arsenic, sulfate and other factors, but those will be measured in lab analyses that take more time.
Phosphogypsum is radioactive, with levels varying by the location where the ore is mined. While federal regulations ban selling gypsum with radiation above certain levels, Williams said his company is allowed to sell its material as a soil supplement to farmers who grow crops including peanuts and mushrooms.
If tests find household wells are contaminated, arrangements will be made to provide clean water, Miller said. She said people concerned about their drinking water supply should call the Hamilton County Health Department at (386) 792-1414.
Sinkholes happen in Florida after acidic water seeps into underground limestone formations and erodes them. Most rainwater is slightly acidic, and that increases when it's exposed to decaying plant debris, according to a DEP primer on sinkholes.
Phosphate mining is a leading industry in Hamilton County, located off Interstate 10 along the Suwannee River about 80 miles west of Jacksonville.
Williams said he could only recall one other sinkhole developing at his company's facilities around White Springs, and said the earlier one did not involve gypsum stacks.