The world’s largest producer of phosphate for use as fertilizer The Mosaic Company, based out of Plymouth, Minnesota, has agreed to a historic $2 billion settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The EPA accused the company of improperly storing and disposing over 60 billion pounds of phosphogypsum waste, with mounds that reached up to 500 feet that span over as much as 600 acres in eight facilities in Louisiana and surrounding the Tampa Bay area in Florida. Due to the major flooding in the Tampa area due to Hurricane Francis in 2004, 65 million gallons of acidic waste spilled into nearby waterways, causing extensive damage to fish and marine life. Tampa Bay is one of the few places on Earth that house the endangered manatee, or sea cow. In addition to its acidic toxicity, phosphogypsum also contains trace amounts of radioactivity. The stacks in Florida are the largest toxic waste dumps in the U.S. As an independent entity, Mosaic itself did not exist during the 2004 storm, which occurred in late summer. The company was created on October 25th, 2004 as a result of a merger between fertilizer producer IMC Global, which was founded in 1909, and a division of agricultural giant Cargill.
The settlement comes after eight years of negotiations between Mosaic and regulators, who have accused the company of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Clean Water Act, as well as state-level hazardous waste laws in Louisiana and Florida. As part of the penalty, $650 million will be placed into a trust fund, with additional contributions from the company maxing out at $1.8 billion to aid with future closing of the plants and long-term care of the gigantic stacks in Riverview, along with the other Florida locations as well as two plants operating in St. James Parish in Louisiana. The money will also help with the cleanup of three plants in those states that have already been closed. Mosaic will also pay $170 million to modify its current wastewater maintenance systems to eliminate acidic content before it is placed on the waste piles of phosphogypsum. The agreement also calls for a $5 million penalty from the federal government, a $1.45 million penalty for the state of Florida, and a $1.55 million penalty to the state of Louisiana. The agreement must be approved by federal judges in each state and will be subject to a 30-day commenting period in Florida and a 45-day commenting period in Louisiana.
Despite the financial burden of the agreement, Mosaic will not cease its phosphorus mining operations. The company’s CEO Joc O’Rourke said in a statement, “We are pleased to be bringing this matter to a close.” O’Rourke added, “In the years since EPA began this enforcement initiative, Mosaic has voluntarily made a number of major improvements to and significant capital investments in our facilities to enhance environmental performance, and the settlements will build upon that good work.” Florida contains phosphate deposits that account for over 75 percent of the U.S.’s phosphate consumption, an $85 billion industry. The EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Cynthia Giles said about the agreement, “This case is a major victory for clean water, public health and communities across Florida and Louisiana,” and Justice Department assistant attorney general John C. Cruden added, “This settlement will have a significant impact on bringing all Mosaic facilities into compliance with the law.” The dumping of acidic and slightly radioactive material was not prohibited prior to the 1972 Clean Water Act, meaning that phosphate companies had been polluting places like Mississippi River and tributaries of Tampa Bay for decades prior to the stronger regulatory measures.
(Full disclosure: I had served as vendor for Mosaic in the mid-2000s as a courier between the various sites in Florida)
New York Times – Cain Burdeau/Associated Press
Tampa Bay Times – Craig Pittman
The Advocate – David J. Mitchell