Legal pressure mounts on EPA over phosphate waste regulation

mining dump trucks loaded in a coal mine

In Tallahassee, a coalition of environmental organizations that includes the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and Waterkeepers Florida has issued a formal notice of intent to sue the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The groups are urging the EPA to address longstanding concerns over the regulation of phosphogypsum waste, a toxic byproduct of the fertilizer production process prevalent in Florida.

This legal action stems from a 2021 petition in which the groups sought tighter regulations on the disposal and management of phosphogypsum stacks. These waste piles, alongside large quantities of contaminated wastewater, have raised significant environmental and health alarms, particularly after the 2021 crisis at the Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County. An emergency discharge of wastewater into Tampa Bay was initiated to prevent a breach of the reservoir, spotlighting the potential hazards posed by such waste sites.

The 18-page notice criticizes the EPA’s inaction since the petition, highlighting major phosphogypsum leaks into surface and groundwater. It points to the EPA’s 1991 decision against regulating phosphogypsum under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—a law that empowers the EPA to manage hazardous waste—despite suggesting future regulation under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which has yet to materialize.

The coalition argues that the EPA’s delay violates legal obligations to respond within a reasonable timeframe, demanding immediate action to mitigate the risks associated with phosphogypsum stacks. These stacks are a result of mixing mined phosphate rock with sulfuric acid to produce phosphoric acid, a key ingredient in fertilizer.

Mosaic, a leading player in the phosphate industry, claims to adhere to rigorous standards set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA, citing its comprehensive monitoring systems for pollution control and waste management. The company suggests that Florida’s stringent regulations serve as a model for national standards.

The impending lawsuit highlights the tension between environmental safety and industry regulation, underscoring the need for updated and enforceable standards to protect communities and ecosystems from the hazardous impacts of phosphogypsum waste.

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