Toxic Substances

Piney Point gypsum stacksThe staff of Suncoast Waterkeeper has a long history of opposition to the presence of toxic materials in our environment, and take every reasonable action needed to ensure the removal of toxic substances, inhibit the transport of such materials, and ensure the safety of their storage.

The Suncoast, at first glance, does not seem to have the industrial legacy one normally associates with PCBs, dioxins, furans and the like, but the toxic oil dispersant Corexit from the Deepwater Horizon BP spill is being found in Gulf caught fish, as are elevated levels of PAH (petroleum hydrocarbons) and mercury, which rains down on us from sources near and far, principally from the combustion of coal. Most of the coastal and upland waters of Florida are subject to health advisories cautioning women of child-bearing age and young children from eating many species of fish more than once a week. Some species should not be consumed at all.

For fish advisories that apply to your area, visit the Florida Department of Health's seafood consumption guide.

Because TMDLs (total maximum daily loads) set limits for pollutants entering the state’s waters, it is critical that TMDLs be established for all toxic pollutants, and enforced. Even mercury, of which less than 35% comes from local sources, can be brought to levels that are protective of human health through actions required to meet the state’s TMDLs. Suncoast Waterkeeper supports the establishment and enforcement of TMDLs. Not all harmful materials have established TMDLs, nor are all the waterways of Florida covered by TMDLs. Much work remains to be done.

Phosphate mining produces a highly-concentrated waste product called phosphogypsum, which is radioactive and cannot be disposed of in any normal ways. It is piled up in “gypsum stacks,” that cover as much as 600 acres and tower 200 feet above the surrounding landscape. The abandoned gypsum stacks at Piney Point, in Manatee County, are filled with water and threaten to collapse their retaining berms, and remain a standing threat to the health and safety of humans and the ecosystems of Tampa Bay and the area around Port Manatee.

Phosphate mining in Florida

Clay, filtered from the phosphate slurry, is also tainted by radioactive uranium and radium, which cannot be put back into the environment. The clay is poured into huge settling ponds on the mine sites, where up to 40% of the mine area is taken up by these radioactive settling ponds. When a mine is exhausted and the surface is “restored,” the radioactive material is left at the bottom of the ponds and covered over. These ponds are known to leak, and through lateral migration may be contaminating the region’s aquifers.

Port Manatee, the region’s rapidly expanding transportation hub on Tampa Bay near Piney Point is one of Florida’s largest ports and the region’s closest deepwater seaport to the Panama Canal. The port transports tons of hazardous wastes and is home to an expanding industrial complex. We must be vigilant in ensuring that the port operates and grown safely.

Another source of harmful chemicals arrives in stormwater runoff containing pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers from golf courses and lawns. The Clean Water Act specifies various types of intervention in the flow of stormwater runoff, but many outdated systems still exist.

Photo Credit: Sarasota Herald Tribune