FNRLI Session IV
Reclamation of Phosphate-Mined Lands
Haines City
April 22-24, 2004

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Phosphate is a natural, abundant yet nonrenewable resource essential to all living cells. People and animals get the phosphate they need from foods; plants get it from the soil. For soils that are nutrient-deficient, however, phosphate is mined to produce fertilizers that replenish this vital chemical. (Phosphate contains compounds of phosphorous, which is the essential-to-life element.) There is no artificial replacement for phosphate or for phosphorous at this time.

The stores of phosphate in Florida were formed from marine deposits, transformed by biological and chemical changes that took place millions of years ago when the state was covered by the sea. Although there are phosphate deposits all over the world, and many are mined, Florida has one of the most economically accessible deposits on earth because it lies relatively close to the surface (at depths of 15-50 feet) under a soft, easily removed "overburden" of sandy soil. The state's phosphate mining industry is additionally aided by a solid infrastructure of transportation facilities and nearby fertilizer plants. Consequently, Florida provides about 75 percent of the nation's supply of phosphate fertilizer and about 25 percent of the world's supply. 

Phosphate has been mined in Florida for more than 100 years. The "Great Florida Phosphate Boom" began in the 1890s, not long after high-grade phosphate was first discovered in Marion County, as well as in the Peace River. Prospectors flooded into Florida in the wake of the discovery and by 1894 there were over 200 mining companies operating in the state. But the boom was brief. Only 50 companies were still in operation by 1900. The industry has experienced further, albeit slower, consolidation ever since. Only three phosphate-mining companies operate in Florida today, including IMC, which hosted our field trip to their mining site in central Florida. IMC is the largest phosphate mining company not only in Florida, but in the world.

Although guest speaker and IMC representative Bob Kinsey described phosphate mining as a "temporary land use," mining disturbs the terrain so severely while in progress that the active site is called a "moonscape." Since 1975 the Department of Environmental Protection has required phosphate miners to repair the visible damage and, to the extent practicable, return the land to its natural function prior to mining. The reclamation of mined lands is normally completed within two years of closing a mining site, in accordance with Florida Statutes (Chapter 378.2).

This FNRLI session focused primarily on the reclamation of mined lands and, secondarily, on the controversy created as mining companies seek to open new excavation sites near eco-conscious communities.

Day 1:
We convened at the Florida FFA (Future Farmers of America) Leadership Training Center, an attractive conference and lodging complex on Lake Pierce in Haines City. After lunch we were introduced to Dr. Marshall Breeze, a member of the FNRLI project team from UF, who led an instructive, interactive session on negotiation. He first offered an overview of negotiating concepts and techniques, then engaged the class in a series of games that included auction bidding and deal making. 

"Show me the Power, Wes "

Fellow Wes Wheeler pointed out one of the lessons the role-playing was designed to teach: "If you don't have power it's not in your interest to negotiate; you want to obstruct." We also observed that forming alliances or understanding the specific needs of a rival (the needs could complement instead of compete with your own) can be elements of a win-win strategy.


Next up was Dr. Roy Carriker with an introduction to legal research skills. Equipped with a helpful handout but not with the Internet access he had been promised, Roy taught the class how to quickly find environmental law via computer, sans the on-line demonstration he had planned. He did demonstrate, however, how to successfully navigate through sub-ideal, "show must go on" circumstances.

Dinner was served on a delightful sunset cruise of lovely Lake Pierce. We returned from our boat ride to an evening session on the reclamation of phosphate lands presented by Mr. Bob Kinsey, a 30-year veteran of IMC Phosphate Corporation. 

Before describing several different land reclamation techniques the company uses, Mr. Kinsey offered an overview of the Florida phosphate industry and itemized its impact on the state's economy:

  • Property taxes are paid to the county

  • Sales tax is paid to the state

  • They purchase equipment, employ thousands (although only half the number the industry employed in the mid 1980s) and they support services (they are the largest shipper out of the port of Tampa, for example).

Relevant to reclamation, the industry also pays a severance tax (since 1975, for the extraction of minerals) to the state that funds the purchase of land. Bob said these funds have enabled the state to buy more land "by far" than the amount that has been mined. The severance tax also established and funds the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research (FIPR: www.fipr.state.fl.us), an independent research agency that studies various uses of reclaimed lands and provides information to the industry and the public.

Although the phosphate mining industry contributes, it also consumes. "We use a lot of water," Bob Kinsey said, but recycle "about 95 percent of it." We also learned that the company is the second largest private consumer of electricity in Florida, behind the Publix supermarket chain. "Everything we do is either electric or hydraulic”, we were told the following day.

The FFA facility staff built a towering inferno of a bonfire that evening that could likely be seen from miles away. The Fellows gathered at a comfortable distance from the spectacular blaze to enjoy conversation and assorted adult beverages before retiring to our bunkhouses.

Day II:

The class boarded vans, post breakfast, for an extended field trip to view an active mining site, former sites that had been reclaimed, and IMC's phosphate processing plants. Emily Mott won a wager among Fellows in the back of the van by correctly guessing the height of a gypsum stack, at 120 feet, that we passed on the way to the mining pit.

Gypsum, actually "phosphogypsum," is a by-product of phosphate processing. Sulfuric acid is reacted with the phosphate rock that is mined to produce phosphoric acid. The principal fertilizer product DAP (diammonium phosphate) is made by reacting ammonia with phosphoric acid. Chemical processing is necessary because phosphate rock is not watersoluble. Approximately five tons of phosphogypsum are produced for every ton of phosphoric acid produced. This processing by-product must be stockpiled in stacks per a 1989 EPA rule that banned its use because of the trace amounts of radioactivity in the substance. (The radium naturally occurring in the phosphate rock becomes associated with the phosphogypsum during the chemical processing.) 

The stacks were mounting even before the ban, however, due to a traditionally limited market for phosphogypsum. The U.S. has an ample supply of low-cost natural gypsum, and gypsum that is produced as a by-product of coal-fired power plants, and these sources have always been preferred over phosphogypsum (although natural gypsum is slightly, but less, radioactive too). In other parts of the world phosphogypsum is a valuable raw material used in construction materials and chemical manufacturing. Although the EPA revised the rule in 1992 to permit limited use of phosphogypsum under certain conditions, most of the 30 million tons of this substance generated each year will be stacked on the land. There are 21 stacks in central Florida, and three in north Florida, which collectively contain one billion tons of phosphogypsum (FIPR website). 

We arrived at IMC's Four Corners mine on the southwest edge of Polk County, where four county borders meet (Hillsborough, Manatee, Hardee, and Polk). There, a massive machine loomed over the lunar-like landscape: a 7.3 million pound dragline that we were invited to board---a highlight of the field trip. The dragline bucket can hold up to 65 cubic yards of mining material or, on that morning, an entire FNRLI class.

The dragline scoops the overburden and dumps it into spoil piles at the side of the mine pit to expose the phosphate matrix. The matrix is dumped into a pit where high-pressure water guns create a slurry that is pumped by pipe to a "benefication" plant miles away. We traveled on and passed this plant, where the phosphate rock is separated from the sand and clay in the slurry. The separated phosphate is then transported to the chemical processing plant to make DAP, a commodity traded on the world market that fertilizes "heavy crops" such as wheat.

The van trip back to Haines City gave us an opportunity to see, if not scrutinize, land areas that IMC had reclaimed and to munch on a boxed lunch.

Upon our return, there were two sessions conducted before a relaxing and delicious dinner of fried catfish was served poolside. 

First, public radio reporter and producer Donna Green-Townsend provided professional tips on the topic of media relations. Then the stakeholder panel assembled. The panel participants were Bob Kinsey of IMC, Charlotte County Commissioner Adam Cummings, and Kevin Claridge of DEP's bureau of mine reclamation.

Florida Institute of Phosphate Research (FIPR) documents state "Mining has been moving south since Florida Phosphate mining began." The 100,000-acre central Florida phosphate district is known as Bone Valley because of the fossilized bones of prehistoric animals that have been found in the mine pits on top of the phosphate layer (think mastodons and saber-tooth tigers instead of dinosaurs, which were extinct 40 million years before Florida emerged from the sea 25 million years ago). Bone Valley stretches from Polk and Hillsborough counties south through Hardee, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties. Polk County has been the mainstay of the Bone Valley mining operation, but that era is ending. Phosphate companies are now seeking permits to open new mining sites in Manatee, Desoto and Hardee counties. (Sarasota County is likely to remain off limits, according to FIPR.) 

Commissioner Cummings has led a legal challenge of the permitting. He is chiefly concerned about how cumulative hydrological alterations, caused by mining operations particularly along the Peace River, will affect Charlotte Harbor. Overall, he wants to see a master plan from the industry. "We want to see the big picture instead of allowing the first permit, then another...and dying a death of 1,000 cuts," he said. DEP is the intermediary in this dispute that was turned over to the courts before other means of conflict resolution were tried.

"Calm before the storm"

That evening, Donna Green-Townsend shared clips of her broadcasts on environmental issues and advice on how to effectively tell a story to a radio or T.V. audience. Later, another inferno was lit and drew the hearty Fellows who weren't too tired from a very full day to enjoy more campfire time before bedtime.

Day III:
After a pleasant breakfast, Fellow Deborah Burr creatively led a debriefing discussion of the stakeholder panel by posing as a reporter, microphone in hand, to interview her classmates "man on the street" style about their impressions of the previous day's session.

Woman on the street interview 

More interview practice was in store for the Fellows when Donna Green-Townsend returned with a video camera and studio lights. She paired us up to conduct simulated television interviews with one another on the real environmental issues Fellows were facing in their careers. 

The news production theme of the day was cleverly carried into the feedback panel. Fellows Marjorie Moore, Carolyn Saft, and Wes Wheeler gave a highly entertaining and comical presentation of the class's critique of the Haines City session. 

Some of us left curious to learn more about the specific environmental impacts of the phosphate mining industry we were exposed to in this session that was focused instead on land reclamation. To date approximately 300,000 acres, or 460 square miles out of Florida's total land area of 54,000 square miles, have been mined for phosphate.

Bob Kinsey told us on day one that IMC will mine in central Florida for about another 35 years, as that is how long the resources are expected to hold out. In drastic contrast to that assessment, however, the FIPR reports that Florida's phosphate reserves, estimated at ten billion tons, will last 300 more years, based on the current mining rate.

But the future of phosphate mining in Florida will be influenced by factors other than the minable supply of this natural resource. Demand may decrease and competition from other producing countries will almost certainly increase. FIPR envisions technological advances that may result in more efficient fertilizers that could deliver nutrients to plants only when they need them, which would also reduce nutrient runoff into surface and ground water. And although the U.S. leads the world in phosphate production (and Florida is first among the other phosphate producing states of North Carolina, Idaho, and Utah), the current competitive advantage could be lost to emerging phosphate powerhouses Morocco and China. Number two world producer Morocco, for instance, has phosphate reserves estimated to be six times larger that the U.S. reserves and is improving its technology and infrastructure to better support the phosphate industry, according to FIPR. 

While the future is unclear, the class could plainly see that the phosphate mining industry's southward march is making its next-in-line neighbors in Florida terribly uncomfortable today.

Written by
Mary Oakley, Florida International University
Gabrielle Milch, Watershed Action Volunteers Program Coordinator, Seminole County, FL.
Church Roberts, Johnson Engineering

School of Natural Resources and Environment