Strip mining the Peace River Valley in central Florida is unknown by most people throughout the U.S. Families living in central Florida as a whole are unaware of the phosphate strip mining industry’s devastation in surrounding counties. Most people do not know about the severe environmental impacts caused by strip mining for, in this case, phosphate rock. The phosphate rock is removed from the land surface down to about one hundred feet. Huge machines called draglines strip the earth. The draglines remove the earth in particular patterns for greater efficiency. The dragline completely removes the landscape including streams, rivers, watersheds, water tables, aquifers, and springs. The dragline is relentless at destroying all life in the mined pits for the valuable phosphate rock it seeks.
The phosphate mining proponents use land reclamation (1) as a catch-all phrase while phosphate mining opponents use irreparable ecological landscape damage as their catch-all phrase. Who does one choose to believe is being frank concerning phosphate depleted severely disturbed landscape reclamation? Locally, pro-phosphate industry commercials boast reclamation of severely disturbed post-mined lands as a complete success. However, the same abandoned mine pits I frequented near Brandon, FL as a youth in the early 1970’s have yet to see any reclamation. Florida’s citizens do not have the resources to bring awareness with commercials illustrating the phosphate industry irreversible environmental damage.
Let me be clear; one should notice both sides of this “difference of opinion” are not playing at the same “level.” By “level”, I speak of political influence based on the financial gain concerning the two sides at odds. For example, the Florida phosphate industry donates hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly to political parties of both republican and democrat interests. In contrast, central Florida citizens cannot afford to compete with the dollars spent (donated) for politically motivated interests.
Interestingly, Florida’s phosphate industry owns enough land in Florida to cover the state of Rhode Island. That is, the phosphate industry holds hundreds of square miles of sensitive ecosystem areas all procured through political interest for financial gain. Florida statutes state reclaimed landscapes must serve the original purpose; that of being part of a complete ecosystem restored to pre-mining conditions. The industry claims reclaimed lands are re-integrated with the surrounding natural landscape and restored original drain patterns to pre-mining conditions.
Florida statutes require the phosphate industry return mined lands to a “beneficial use.” “Beneficial use” is defined as – maximize social, economic, and ecological benefits, provide quality of life and sustainable jobs for local communities and maximize environmental protection. By definition, the central Florida mined landscape is not restored to its “beneficial use” condition, say the opponents of Florida’s phosphate industry. While proponents of phosphate mining say, the phosphate industry officials and Florida’s politicians display their reclamation projects as restoring the landscape to a “beneficial use.”
Unfortunately, Florida’s phosphate industry and politicians are not telling the whole truth about mined land reclamation. The definition of “beneficial use” being empirically used today, suits the supporters of the phosphate industry. Reclaimed mined lands are sold for residential use and are now being populated. These residential neighborhoods built on reclaimed mined lands in Lakeland, FL display adverse impacts on human health. People are becoming ill allegedly from living on reclaimed mined land with higher than accepted radium emissions, which is five to seven picocuries, based on EPA reports.
The public is not being told about the impossibility of restoring the landscape to its original condition. Each of the reclaimed mined lands that have been observed over time reportedly show reclaimed mine landscapes compacted soil mix does not perform as efficiently as the original soils. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that compacted soils in reclaimed mined lands do not allow for water penetration which is essential in central Florida. Compacted soils decrease water mobility (2), reduces flora root penetration and increases run-off, all of which is detrimental to growing a new landscape from strip mined lands. Compacted soils also hinder earthworms, insects, and small animals from aeration of the soil because the soil is too compacted to burrow or form nesting of worms and insects.
Florida’s phosphate industry’s reclaimed soils are now known to have higher than normal radioactive elements which are taken up by food crops growing on reclaimed mined soils. Interestingly, the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research (FIPR) states radioactivity in the agriculture uptake is elevated, but not enough to cause concerns. Many contaminants, including radioactive elements such as 226-Radium, can be taken up by crops and enter the food chain. The FIPR concluded that radioactive concentrations are increased in crops and cattle when grown on reclaimed phosphate mined lands.
Concerned citizens should contact their elected officials and let them know Florida’s phosphate industry’s practices are unacceptable because human welfare and lives are at stake.
1. Paradise well and truly lost | The Economist. Economist com
2. Potential Environmental Effects of Mining, ncbi.nlm.nih gov