For Immediate Release, April 12, 2021
Kristen Schlemmer, Bayou City Waterkeeper, (512) 619-1583, firstname.lastname@example.org
Congress Urged to Investigate Huge Wastewater Release, Threat of Catastrophic Collapse of Florida’s Piney Point Phosphogypsum Stack
Tragedy Highlights Failure of States, EPA to Protect Communities, Environment From Phosphate Industry’s Radioactive Waste
WASHINGTON— Conservation and public-health groups called on Congress today to investigate the near-collapse of the radioactive Piney Point phosphogypsum stack and the ongoing emergency caused by the discharge of hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater.
The request was made in a letter submitted to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The letter highlights not only the unfolding environmental disaster at Piney Point but the nearly three decades of documented environmental crises at the dozens of phosphogypsum stacks throughout the United States. It calls on Congress to:
“Congressional leaders must face the reality that radioactive phosphogypsum stacks across the U.S. are failing,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This crisis has been decades in the making, yet state and federal regulators are still failing to protect us from this toxic, radioactive waste. U.S. lawmakers need to act quickly to prevent disasters like Piney Point from happening in communities across the country.”
“The phosphate industry should be held accountable and pay for the cleanup of Piney Point. Government officials should ensure the permanent closure of the site and hold the owners responsible for the cost of the cleanup,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88. “We should no longer risk the environmental integrity of Tampa Bay and the health of the surrounding residents.”
“Tampa Bay Waterkeeper works hard to ensure our community’s right to fishable, drinkable and swimmable waters is protected,” said Megan Eakins, board chair for the Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. “Government at every level has failed to protect this community from the Piney Point crisis and we need you to step up now to make sure this doesn’t happen again, here or anywhere else.”
Phosphogypsum and process wastewater from phosphogypsum facilities are currently excluded from certain federal hazardous waste regulations. On Feb. 8, 2021, more than a dozen groups petitioned the EPA to improve federal oversight of phosphogypsum and process wastewater.
Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste from processing phosphoric acid, which is predominantly used in fertilizer. Radium-226, found in phosphogypsum, has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life. In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and process wastewater can also contain carcinogens and toxic heavy metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc.
More than 70 phosphogypsum stacks are scattered across Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
“We watch the situation at Piney Point with concern for Tampa Bay-area residents first and foremost. As the catastrophic release is contained, we hope this disaster will show the EPA the pressing need to regulate these materials now,” said Kristen Schlemmer, legal director of Bayou City Waterkeeper. “By taking action, the EPA can protect other communities in Texas and along the rest of the Gulf Coast from similar disasters in years to come.”
"We in Louisiana know the dangers of these phosphogypsum stacks. In January of 2020 the Mosaic Uncle Sam almost had a catastrophic failure of the north wall which would have released 450 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into the wetlands around Lake Pontchartrain," said Darryl Malek-Wiley, organizing representative for Sierra Club.
“This is an emergency,” said Sharon Lavigne, executive director of RISE St. James. “Piney Point shows how close we live to the threat of a catastrophe. If the Uncle Sam Plant collapses, it will poison our water ways, ditches, bayous, canals and lakes and enter into the Gulf of Mexico.”
“This terrible incident is yet another a chapter in the long, terrible story of phosphate mining in Florida and beyond,” said Joe McClash, board chair of Suncoast Waterkeeper. “Without adequate regulation and enforcement, catastrophes like this will be repeated time and again.”
“This latest large-volume toxic wastewater release at Piney Point is part of a decades-long history of phosphate fertilizer industry waste contamination occurring across the country and illustrates what happens when a federal problem is inappropriately left largely to the states to mishandle,” said Rachael Curran, a People for Protecting Peace River attorney. “The EPA has long recognized the need for a comprehensive federal regulatory program designed to manage the unreasonable risks presented by phosphogypsum stacks. Yet despite a repeatedly demonstrated inability or unwillingness on the part of industry and state regulatory agencies to safely contain this harmful, radioactive, toxic waste threatening hundreds of thousands of Americans, EPA has failed to act meaningfully. Congress must investigate that failure before the next, inevitable disaster.”
On Dec. 18, 2020, conservation and public health groups sued the Trump administration for approving the use of phosphogypsum in road construction. The decision reversed a longstanding EPA determination that phosphogypsum presents an unreasonable risk to human health and the environment.
“Having an adequate reverse osmosis system in place should be a requirement of the industry before approving operations, as opposed to having the public pay for it as an emergency operation later,” said Michael Roth, president of Our Santa Fe River. “We know that gypstacks aren’t a final dispositive solution; we should stop allowing them to be considered as such.”
The Piney Point crisis is just the latest crisis on the long list of gypstack incidents in Florida and beyond.
In 2016 a sinkhole in the New Wales gypstack in Florida released 215 million gallons of process wastewater into the Floridan aquifer, which provides drinking water for 10 million people.
In 2009 a sinkhole in the PCS gypstack in White Springs, Florida released 84 million gallons of process wastewater.
In 2004 the Riverview gypstack in Florida discharged 65 million gallons of process wastewater into Hillsborough Bay, Florida.
Since 2019 the Uncle Sam gypstack in Louisiana has been moving laterally, causing concern of a catastrophic collapse.
Using law and science, Bayou City Waterkeeper works across the greater Houston region to protect bayous, creeks, and bays, and the communities that depend on them, by pushing back against irresponsible development, filling gaps in regulatory enforcement, and building community power.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
ManaSota-88, Inc. is a public interest conservation and environmental protection organization, which is a Florida not-for-profit corporation and a citizen of the State of Florida. The corporate purposes of ManaSota-88 include the protection of the public's health, the preservation of air and water quality, and the protection of wildlife habitat.
Our Santa Fe River, Inc. is a Florida based nonprofit organization working to protect the waters and lands supporting the aquifer, springs and rivers within the watershed of the Santa Fe River.
People for Protecting Peace River is a Florida-based non-profit conservation organization dedicated to ending the harms caused by the phosphate fertilizer industry in the Peace River watershed and beyond.
RISE St. James is a nonprofit, grassroots, faith-based organization formed to advocate for racial and environmental justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 3.5 million members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.
Suncoast Waterkeeper works to protect and restore the Florida Suncoast’s waterways through enforcement, fieldwork, advocacy, and environmental education for the benefit of the communities that rely upon these precious coastal resources.
Tampa Bay Waterkeeper works to defend, protect, and preserve Tampa Bay’s watershed through citizen engagement and community action rooted in sound science and research.The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.