Drinking Water Safe But DEP Faces Criticism Over Sinkhole Response

Nov 18, 2016

Aerial photo of the sinkhole as of 9/6/16
Credit Florida Department of Environmental Protection

State regulators are assuring Floridians their drinking water is safe in the wake of a sinkhole at a Polk county fertilizer plant.  But the agency’s response is raising other concerns.

In late August the sinkhole opened up at Mosaic’s New Wales facility in Polk County.  It happened in what’s known as a gypsum stack—a steadily growing hill of waste material left over from the fertilizer production process.  Florida’s bedrock is porous, and over time those stacks can become too heavy for the limestone to support.  Now Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham is taking aim at the Department’s response in the days immediately following the spill.

“I am very concerned that the first response to this was to not alert those that were closest to the sinkhole spill,” Graham says.  “That should’ve been done immediately after Mosaic notified DEP.”

Grahams is considering running for governor in 2018, and her office filed a public records request shortly after the spill became public knowledge.  Despite Mosaic notifying the department of the sinkhole on August 28, the first time it shows up in agency emails is September 15. 

A request for an interview with a DEP spokesperson about the apparent gap in communication was not returned by this story’s deadline.

“We have an obligation to the people of Florida,” Graham says, “and the people of Florida were not put first in terms of their response.  And these public records just confirm what my worst concerns were, which is that the actions they were taking did not show the urgency of the situation.”

Mosaic and state regulators are scrambling—pumping out dangerous water and testing local wells.  In its daily updates on the spill, the Department of Environmental Protection notes there is still no evidence of the spill moving off-site, threatening drinking water supplies or contaminating the Floridan aquifer.  But that’s not the only response.

“The rule includes the specific notification requirements that need to be submitted,” DEP program director Stephanie Gudeman explained at a rule development workshop earlier this month.  “These include the names and addresses of the people contacting the department, the substances that has been released.”

The rule is in development right now and requires 24 hour public notification for pollution incidents.  But some industrial interests have argued the regulation is too broad, and that concern came up at a meeting of the Pinellas County legislative delegation.

“The specific question that I have is,” Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) asked, “is there a specific size of the spill that triggers the rule?”

Ryan Matthews, a deputy secretary with the department pointed out the original rule didn’t have a cut-off but the agency has since updated it.

“There were no limitations—no thresholds—for what a pollution incident is,” Matthews explained.  “Is it a five gallon gas tank? Is it a can of paint that you spill on your driveway?  What the new rule states that if you are an owner of an installation—a waste water treatment facility—an installation is defined in statute.  And you have a spill that meets certain thresholds, those thresholds are if it’s a reportable incident to the State Watch Office. So there are clearly defined thresholds within that rule that show you what needs to be notified.”

Those updates shift the focus of the rule to larger facilities and spills.  The department filed the changes on November 15 which means the final rule can go into effect as early as December 6.