A massive sinkhole that formed beneath a stack of hazardous waste material has resulted in roughly 215 million gallons of radioactive wastewater leaking into the aquifer below. The aquifer is a primary source of drinking water for millions of residents, while water that flows out of the aquifer enters springs and rivers that are popular for recreational pursuits such as swimming and kayaking.
The incident occurred at a waste storage site of a fertilizer plant in New Wales, Florida. The company, Mosaic, first noticed that water levels in a wastewater pond at the stack had dropped significantly, and upon inspection, discovered a massive sinkhole with a diameter of 45 feet. The stack is used to store phosphogypsum, a radioactive waste byproduct that is produced when phosphate is used in the manufacture of fertilizers, which apparently is a common practice at industrial plants such as this.
According to a statement released by Mosaic, the pond liner beneath the phosophogypsum stack was damaged when the sinkhole developed, resulting in the leakage from the pond above, which has not as yet been contained.
"Based on the nature of the water loss and what we've learned so far," the sinkhole damaged the liner system at the base of a phosophogypsum stack, Mosaic said on Thursday. "The pond on top of the cell drained as a result" and "some seepage continues."
According to a company spokesperson, it is believed that the sinkhole extends to the Floridan aquifer, which means that this water supply has been contaminated with around 215 million gallons of water that contains industrial pollutants used in the fertilizer manufacturing process, which have seeped into the hole.
The company has taken steps to rectify the situation and possibly avoid further damage. According to a company statement:
"We are working closely with regulators and have been reporting to FDEP daily. We have also called in top experts in the field to advise us on this issue. Enhanced water quality monitoring continues, and we are developing a comprehensive corrective action plan to address and rectify the cause of the water loss," the company added.
"Mosaic immediately implemented additional and extensive groundwater monitoring and sampling regimens and has found no offsite impacts," the company said. Mosaic also "began pumping water out of the west cell" of the affected phosphogypsum stack "into an alternative holding area on site to reduce the amount of drainage", and has also "begun the process of recovering the water" that drained through the sinkhole "by pumping through onsite production wells," it said.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) have confirmed that the company has alerted both the DEP and the EPA of the incident that occurred at their facility, and has taken immediate action to investigate and implement remedial action, and keep both regulatory authorities updated on the status and progress. The FDEP is also carefully monitoring the situation, conducting frequent visits to the site to ensure that a "timely and appropriate response continues in order to safeguard public health and the environment."
However, local residents are not convinced. Local news media reported that picketers from Polka County gathered outside the Mulberry City Hall on Saturday morning to protest the lack of preventative measures taken to protect their drinking water.
While all the above efforts and responses are reactive rather than proactive, as consumers, we can take steps to ensure that the water we drink is free from contaminants. By investing in a good quality drinking water filter you can remove any unwanted pollutants — including many industrial pollutants — that may make their way into your water supply.