They’re block-sized ponds: sewage pits that contain the dangerous coal byproducts. Lagoons overflowing with diluted pig excrement. Vast pools atop piles of radioactive residues.
The risks posed by trash puddles like these, a feature common to thousands of industrial and agricultural sites across the country, were highlighted by a huge sewage pond in Piney Point, Fla., Which in recent days had appeared in danger. of catastrophic failure.
Officials said Monday the threat of collapse had passed after an emergency effort pumped millions of gallons of water out of the pond and into local waterways. The environmental effects of such a large release of contaminated water remain unknown. Last weekend, the specter of a flood prompted authorities to evacuate hundreds of people from their homes.
Outdoor ponds are vital for large industries, such as animal husbandry and power generation. But environmental groups say they pose major environmental, health and safety risks, whether through mismanagement or, increasingly, the effects of climate change.
“This is just an irresponsible way of storing very hazardous waste,” said Daniel Estrin, general counsel at Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit group for drinking water. “And with climate change, we’re going to see more frequent and stronger storms impacting these sites.”
The emergency in Florida, in a former phosphate mining plant south of Tampa, is particularly dramatic. There, a pool that initially held over 400 million gallons of sewage, along with traces of heavy metals and other toxic substances, sits atop a pile of phosphogypsum tailings at least 70 feet in height. high. Tailings are wastes that are left behind when ores from phosphate mining are processed to create phosphoric acid, an ingredient used in fertilizers.
For decades, the tailings, a radioactive wet suspension containing traces of radium along with arsenic, lead and other elements, were placed in ponds and left to evaporate, leaving behind huge piles of phosphogypsum topped with water. The fear was that if the pond collapsed, it could wash away the residue, sending a “wall of water” on nearby homes and businesses.
Tailings mounds like these, which are scattered at more than two dozen sites across Florida, are among the tallest earthen structures in the state. Florida is the largest phosphate-producing region in the world, according to the EPA, and accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s phosphate mines. The United States extracts and consumes approximately 23 million tonnes of phosphate per year.
But at the site of the current breach, evaporation did not keep pace with precipitation, which continued to add to ponds at the site, according to the Bradenton Herald. On numerous occasions over the past year, site owner HRK Holdings has found tears in the plastic liner containing the sewage and warned local authorities that the ponds were quickly running out of capacity, said reported the Herald.
Reached by phone, Jeff Barath, managing director of HRK Holdings, said he was “just the boot guy on the pitch” and was not authorized to speak to the press. A number he gave for a spokesperson, as well as a number listed on the company’s website, failed to connect.
To relieve the pressure on the walls of the swimming pools, workers released about 35 million gallons of sewage per day into nearby waterways. Even if the fear of a larger breach appears to have passed, there will likely be environmental fallout from the emergency discharge of polluted water, which also contains nutrients that can cause harmful algal blooms, followed by the dead fish.
“When the highest point on our horizon is a toxic waste site, it’s terrifying,” said Hannah Connor, senior advocate for the environmental health program at the Center for Biological Diversity. “And with more rains and more severe storms, it will happen more frequently.”
Piney Point and beyond
While phosphogypsum tailings stacks like the one at the Piney Point site are concentrated in Florida, thousands of outdoor industrial and agricultural sewage ponds dot the country. They include at least 70 phosphogypsum chimneys, 700 coal and ash ponds near coal-fired power plants, and thousands of agricultural facilities like the vast lagoons of large industrial livestock farms.
These farm pools usually have a striking bubble gum pink hue, a deceptively cheerful color that results from anaerobic bacteria that digest foul manure, a mixture of water, animal feces, and chemicals.
When agriculture was practiced on a more humane scale, manure was of value to farmers as a fertilizer for corn, which would then feed the next generation of pigs and cows. But now most of the corn is grown on an industrial scale using synthetic fertilizers. As a result, excreta are now collected and stored in cesspools.
These earthen pits, many of which are not lined, pose a risk of leaching into groundwater, said D’Ann Williams, a researcher at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Gases also escape from the lagoons, or crusts can form on top, trapping the gas and then releasing shards of hydrogen sulfide or ammonia, both of which affect the air quality in the area.
“And when you have flooding and you can’t handle the amount of water coming in, you can end up with bacteria and chemicals in surface water and on land,” Ms. Williams said.
Hurricane Florence, which caused record-breaking flooding in the Carolinas in 2018, flooded more than 100 pig lagoons, releasing their contents into the floodwaters. Excess nitrates in pig manure have also been linked with health problems, like blue baby syndrome, which prevents blood from carrying oxygen around an infant’s body and can be fatal.
Various efforts to strengthen federal oversight of manure lagoons have failed, and most ponds are regulated at the state level. However, the Environmental Protection Agency has acted in some of the more egregious cases, ordering dairy farms to consolidate their lagoons after tests showed high levels of nitrate, which can harm human health, in residential drinking water wells.
In the early 2000s, agricultural giant Smithfield Foods promised to explore alternative ways to handle manure under a deal with North Carolina. An expert appointed by the world’s largest pork producer, now a 100% subsidiary of Chinese meat and food processing company WH Group, offered a number of different options, including one that would solidify fecal waste , but none of these were considered economically feasible.
Environmental groups recently asked the state to review the deal. Smithfield said he had already fully complied with the terms of the deal. The company did not immediately provide additional comment.
“It’s a model that needs to be revised – this model of large-scale animal production,” Ms. Williams said. “These are huge industries but they are not regulated like industries. They are still regulated as if they were small farms. “
Hundreds of coal ash pools
When coal-fired power plants generate electricity, they leave behind hundreds of thousands of tonnes of a toxic residue called coal ash, which is mixed with water and drained into ponds on the property of the factory.
Kemp Burdette, the keeper of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, saw what happens when these ash ponds – which contain arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals dangerous to human health – are invaded by floods.
Hurricane Florence flooded Duke Energy’s Sutton plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, which had previously burned coal. (Today it burns gas.) In response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, Duke had started digging the ponds, moving the coal ash into covered landfills, but the floodwaters eroded the defenses of the site, releasing coal ash.
“You had this torrent of water that had picked up the ash from the coal that had just run off,” Mr. Burdette said. “You could see great spirals of ash floating down the river.”
Bill Norton, a spokesperson for Duke, said “a very small amount of ash” had made its way off the factory property and was recovered.
More than 700 landfills and bodies of water across the United States still store coal ash. An Obama-era rule would have required power companies to start shutting down their coal ash ponds in 2018, but the Trump administration, in one of its many environmental regulatory setbacks, has acted to weaken Rule. President Biden is currently reviewing the flashback.
North Carolina, however, has started requiring power companies to dig their coal ash storage ponds under a new state law that requires all ponds to close by 2029, ashes secured, dried and kept away from water. The ponds at the Sutton plant are now closed.
“The assertion has always been, we can’t clean this stuff, it’s impossible,” said Mr. Burdette. “But of course it’s possible. You just have to spend the money to do it. “