POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — A massive sinkhole on top of a Mosaic gypsum stack near Mulberry allowed millions of gallons of contaminated water to flow into the Floridan Aquifer.
Eagle 8 flew over the huge chasm in the earth and spotted a cascading waterfall in the middle of what looks like a moonscape. The is happening in the New Wales plant off Highway 640, south of Mulberry.
The sinkhole opened up almost three weeks ago. Since then, about 215 million gallons of contaminated water have drained into the aquifer. The sinkhole is about 40 feet across. It’s depth is unknown.
It sits right in the middle of a massive gypsum stack. Gypsum comes out of the plant after the company produces phosphate fertilizers and animal feed ingredients.
On Aug. 27 workers monitoring water levels discovered a drop. “When it was first noticed, we installed pumping systems to move water out of that compartment on the gypsum stack, to recover the water,” said David Jefferson, Mosaic’s director of environment and phosphate projects.
The water is contaminated with phosphoric acid and is slightly radioactive. Not all of it is being caught by pumps.
You wouldn’t want to drink it, but so far, Mosaic engineers don’t believe the water is making it to private wells.
Near the gypsum stack, Mosaic has monitoring wells. “We’re confident that the wells we started up are capturing that water pulling it back,” Jefferosn said.
He said the closest homeowners, who are all several miles away, can still use their water without worry, but if they have concerns, Mosaic will test it.
So far, the company maintains, everything is OK.
“We continue to monitor the stack, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to insure that there’s no safety or environmental concern on top of the gypsum stack itself, as well as around the rest of the property,” plant assistant general manager Chris Hagemo said.
It took a week for Mosaic workers to figure out where all that water was going.
The next step is to repair the hole in the gypsum stack and continue monitoring to make sure the contaminated water is not getting into drinking water. Representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection are at the plant and have been here every day since the sinkhole was discovered.
Technicians showed up at James Maxwell’s house in Lithia to take samples of water from his well. “I’m scared to death, what it’s already done to me and my neighbors out here,” said James.
Scared because he lives near Mosaic’s New Wales fertilizer plant in
Mulberry. James’ well is one of at least 40 that Mosaic plans to test for
contamination. Mosaic hired ECT, a Tampa company, to take samples from the
wells of neighbors who want their wells tested.
Gary Uehelhoer, senior vice president of ECT, expects to test at least 30 wells on Tuesday. According to Uehelhoer, a company by the name of Pace Analytical Labs will do the actual testing of the samples gathered by ECT.
“Mosaic has instructed us to authorize the lab for a very expedited turnaround time,” Uehelhoer said. “We expect results within a day or two.”
Denise Todd lives 5 minutes from the New Wales plant. “I think we should have been told immediately,” said Denise.
Her water already smells, now she is concerned about contaminants coming her way. “Something that has toxic waste that goes into the aquifer and you didn’t tell anybody? That concerns me, that concerns me,” added Denise.
She has three words for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection which kept the lid on info about the leak. “Shame on you,” she said.
According to DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller, staff continues to perform frequent site visits to safeguard the public health and environment. “Monitoring to date continues to indicate that the process water is being successfully contained, and that there is no evidence of offsite movement or threat to offsite groundwater supplies,” Miller wrote in an email. “Groundwater monitoring will continue to ensure there are no offsite or long-term effects.”