Mosaic apologizes for sinkhole communication delay; says contamination hasn’t spread

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Mosaic New Wales sinkhole location from Google Earth
Location of the Mosaic New Wales phosphogypsum stack (the roughly oval shape bounded in white near the bottom of the picture). The sinkhole (not pictured) occurred on the left segment of that stack. From Google Earth.

Executives from The Mosaic Company apologized Tuesday morning to Polk County residents for weeks of delays in notifying the public about a 45-foot-wide sinkhole that caused more than 200 million gallons of slightly radioactive water to drain into the aquifer.

Walt Precourt, senior vice president of phosphates at Mosaic, told the Polk County Commission there are no off-site impacts.

“On behalf of Mosaic and my nearly 4,000 colleagues in Florida, I would like to express our sincere regret at the sinkhole and recovery operations on our property that have caused concern in the community.

“At Mosaic, the health and safety of our employees and local communities is paramount. We live, work and raise our family in this community. So, we take our responsibilities to protect the public and the environment very seriously.”

Precourt says employees first noticed water loss at the New Wales phosphogypsum stack near Mulberry on August 27. That was confirmed by measurements the next day and Mosaic notified the Florida Department of Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Polk County.

Hershel Morris, vice president of phosphate operations for Mosaic, says pumping began that second day.

“We immediately took steps to begin removing the water from that section of the ‘gyp stack’ as fast as we could. We had a pump installed on that Sunday, pumping about 3,000 gallons a minute out of that area, where we’re having loss, into a safe area. Within three days we had another pump pumping, to try to reduce the amount of water that was going into the aquifer – that we believe went into the aquifer.

“So, by September 6th, about a week and a half later, that particular area of the gyp stack had – the ponded water – had disappeared. That’s the photo that you’re probably so familiar with, that we’ve all seen on the news.”

Morris says the aquifer flows toward the west, which is in the direction of the nearby Hillsborough County line, but that water is being pumped from Mosaic’s wells west of the sinkhole and have found no impacts outside Mosaic property.

“The aquifer moves very slowly to the west. We have wells to the west of there. In fact, we have a production well to the west of there. We have started that well up and that well will completely capture–it has a zone of influence from it’s pumping at about 3,500 gallons a minute – and it will completely capture everything that went down in the aquifer.

“So, its like, ‘Ok, how do you do that? Why don’t you just go to the hole and start pumping out of there?’ Well, first of all, we don’t want to put people in that situation.

“But, if something were to go into a very small stream, you would catch it downstream as opposed to exactly where it went in. That’s exactly what we’re doing. So, if you imagine that it’s moving slightly to the west, our well is picking up everything that went in there.”

During public comment Mulberry resident Paula Largel said she is concerned about the sinkhole that caused more than 200 million gallons of water with radioactive waste to drain into the aquifer not far from her home. She says the community was not made aware for several weeks after Mosaic notified the Florida DEP.

“I understand that you don’t want widespread panic, when something like this occurs, but, by not informing the citizens the result is frustration, fear, mistrust, and anger. And then when the local and the national media get involved, they incite even greater panic.

“I know that they said that they were going to try to address that in the future, which I appreciate. My concern is information. A lot of people – I was not aware of really, a whole lot. I don’t watch a lot of news, so, I don’t know what’s being done.

“It was informational that they did mention this well that’s trapping some of this. It’s hard for me to understand how you can trap all that water – I mean, that’s a lot.

“I would just think if the EPA could step in and give us some information as well, it would be appreciated.”

The sinkhole formed in a gyp stack that rises 120 feet above the ground in western Polk not far from the Hillsborough County line. Morris told the Polk County Commission Mosaic is sampling water from nearby and have found no impacts outside of Mosaic property, even though the pollution is expected to flow underground within the aquifer.

Morris says Mosaic plans to plug the sinkhole, perhaps with a cement-like material.

“So, that plan isn’t complete yet, but, we’ve got the smartest most talented geotechnical experts working on this and how to do this.

“What’s most likely, is that we’ll end up drilling some holes sideways, to determine the cavity underneath there. We’ll use sonar, lasers, all the technical equipment that we need, to define that and then decide how we want to plug that.

“Very likely, what we’ll do is we’ll do ‘grounding.’ It’s a type of cement that we’ll pump in that area and force it to be closed.

“Of prime concern to us is to make sure that all of our employees working on this and our consultants working on this project, are gonna be safe. We don’t want them going anywhere too close to the hole and of course, even as important to us as that is that our neighbors are safe, as far as their drinking water is concerned and we’re absolutely dedicated to the concept of making sure that we have no off-site impact.”

Mosaic is providing bottled water and well testing for residents who request it.

Here’s more audio from the Mosaic section of Tuesday’s Polk County Commission meeting:

 

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