2 years later, Mo­saic seals huge sink­hole

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY CRAIG PITTMAN Times Staff Writer

The $84M project took about a year longer than ex­pected.

Nearly two years af­ter a mas­sive sink­hole opened at Mo­saic’s Mul­berry phos­phate pro­cess­ing plant, a com­pany spokes­woman says it has been sealed at last and will be com­pletely filled by the end of May.

The state Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion has ap­proved de­mo­bi­liz­ing the deep drilling and grout­ing equip­ment used to fill the chasm “since the sink­hole now is sealed in ac­cor­dance with the con­sent or­der re­quire­ments,” said Mo­saic spokes­woman Jackie Bar­ron, which a DEP of­fi­cial con­firmed.

All that’s left is some cos­metic work, Bar­ron said.

“We’re cur­rently work­ing to fill the up­per por­tion of the cav­ity, close the open­ing and level the sur­face,” she said, pre­dict­ing that would be done in the next two weeks.

This was no or­di­nary sink­hole. It was viewed at first as a po­ten­tial threat to the area’s wa­ter sup­ply, and the way it was re­vealed prompted Gov. Rick Scott to push for a change in state law.

For Mo­saic, which just an­nounced that it’s mov­ing its cor­po­rate head­quar­ters from Min­nesota to Florida, filling the chasm took $84 mil­lion and 20,000 cu­bic yards of grout, a thick mix­ture of wa­ter, ce­ment and sand that hard­ens over time.

It also took nearly a year be­yond what the com­pany first ex­pected. Mo­saic of­fi­cials first

said work­ers would be done filling the hole in June 2017, then dis­cov­ered a hole they had thought was 45 feet wide was closer to 100 feet wide, re­quir­ing far more grout.

But the com­pany hopes this ex­pen­sive project closes the book on a ma­jor pub­lic re­la­tions night­mare.

Work­ers at the plant first no­ticed some­thing amiss on Aug. 27, 2016, when they checked the wa­ter level in a 78-acre pond sit­ting atop a 190-foot-tall phos­ph­o­gyp­sum stack at the plant. They dis­cov­ered the wa­ter level had dropped by more than a foot.

Slowly all the wa­ter atop the stack — 215 mil­lion gal­lons of it — drained away. Once the wa­ter was gone, on Sept. 5, Mo­saic of­fi­cials could see the sink­hole, which meant the wa­ter had fallen some 220 feet into the aquifer. Phos­pho­ric acid process wa­ter, a byprod­uct of turn­ing phos­phate into fer­til­izer, is con­sid­ered a pol­lu­tant.

Although Mo­saic of­fi­cials no­ti­fied the DEP right away about the loss of wa­ter, they did not use the word “sink­hole” in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the DEP un­til Sept. 9. Nei­ther the com­pany nor the DEP no­ti­fied the pub­lic un­til Sept. 15, a full 19 days af­ter the cri­sis started, de­spite the threat to the nearby drink­ing wa­ter sup­ply.

At the time, state law did not re­quire no­ti­fy­ing the pub­lic un­less the pol­lu­tion was de­tected be­yond the pol­luter’s prop­erty. Af­ter a tele­vi­sion re­port ex­posed the sink­hole and the spill, Mo­saic is­sued an apol­ogy for not no­ti­fy­ing its neigh­bors or the city of Mul­berry.

Scott held a news con­fer­ence con­demn­ing the de­lay in no­ti­fi­ca­tion — even though his own DEP had kept silent, too.

“It does not make sense that the pub­lic is not im­me­di­ately no­ti­fied when pol­lu­tion in­ci­dents oc­cur,” Scott told reporters gathered near the Mo­saic plant.

At his urg­ing, the Leg­is­la­ture passed a law on pol­lu­tion no­ti­fi­ca­tion. The law, ap­proved by unan­i­mous votes in both cham­bers, re­quires the own­ers of sites where such spills oc­cur to no­tify the DEP within 24 hours. The agency then has a 24-hour dead­line to pub­lish those notices on­line where the pub­lic can see them.

Mo­saic in­stalled mon­i­tor­ing wells to track where the pol­lu­tion went and put in pumps to draw it back out again. Ac­cord­ing to Bar­ron, none of the acidic wa­ter has sur­faced in any­one’s drink­ing wa­ter.

Three res­i­dents liv­ing near the plant who draw their wa­ter from wells filed a fed­eral law­suit against the com­pany in Septem­ber 2016. But they dropped it last June with­out ob­tain­ing a set­tle­ment from Mo­saic.

Sink­holes are far from rare in the area. In fact, Florida’s lime­stone ge­ol­ogy, known as karst, is so sus­cep­ti­ble to crum­bling that the state leads the na­tion in sink­holes.

One of the most no­to­ri­ous Florida sink­holes opened in 1994 at that same Mul­berry phos­phate plant where the Aug. 28 sink­hole opened. At 160 feet wide and plung­ing 200 feet deep, that sink­hole also sucked the pond from a gyp stack into the aquifer, like wa­ter drain­ing out of a bath­tub.

The 1994 sink­hole opened 1¼miles away from the 2016 sink­hole. In that ear­lier in­ci­dent, the pub­lic was no­ti­fied within a week.

Mo­saic

The sink­hole at a Mo­saic phos­phate pro­cess­ing plant in Mul­berry drained pol­luted wa­ter from a gyp­sum stack.

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