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Daily News Blog

09
Apr

Chemical-Intensive Land Management Contributes to Toxic Lagoons Overflowing with Synthetic Fertilizer Waste

(Beyond Pesticides, April 9, 2021) In early April, the leaking, open-air, Piney Point storage pond near Tampa, Florida necessitated hundreds of resident evacuations over concerns that the “reservoir” would breach and flood a three-county area with what was described as a potential “20-foot wall of water.” Ultimately, controlled releases from the 480-million-gallon “pond” (into Tampa Bay) avoided such a flood, but the event underscores the “ticking bomb” nature of such open-air, toxic-liquid-waste facilities, which are used by multiple industries in the U.S. Among those are, as in this case, the phosphate mining sector, and the synthetic fertilizer industry. The latter is tied directly to the chemical-intensive agriculture crisis, and to the exact kind of waste storage facility at issue in the Florida event. This “double whammy” related to synthetic fertilizers further validates Beyond Pesticides’ advocacy for a global transition to organic land management — which rejects the use of synthetic fertilizers for the myriad harms they cause.

As reported by The New York Times, that Florida storage pond contains “legacy processed water” — code for wastewater with traces of heavy metals and other toxicants — contained by walls of phosphogypsum tailings at least 70 feet high. Phosphygypsum tailings are the leftover waste when phosphate ores are processed to create phosphoric acid, an ingredient used in synthetic fertilizers. Most of the 23 million tons of phosphate mined annually in the U.S. is used in production of such fertilizers, and generates enormous amounts of phosphogypsum waste.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes the use of phosphogypsum tailings to store toxic wastewater: “Phosphogypsum has little market value and is transferred as a slurry to waste piles called phosphogypsum stacks. The solid portion of the slurry consolidates while the water pools on the stack’s surface. Eventually gypsum is dredged from the pools to build up the edges around the stack forming a reservoir for storing process water. . . . Stacks are generally constructed on unused land or on mined out areas at production sites with little or no prior preparation of the land. They are not covered with soil or any other material. There are over 70 identified stacks in the U.S. with the highest percentage found in Florida. The stacks are of considerable size, ranging from 2–324 hectares (800 acres) in surface area and 3–60 meters in height.”

The phosphogypsum stacks contain uranium and its decay products, such as the isotope radium-226 (which has a half-life of 1,600 years and decays into radon); these are highly radioactive elements. The stacks also contain toxic elements, such as lead and arsenic. In the Piney Point event, the concern — beyond the potential tsunami of wastewater had the holding pond breached — was that the stacks might then collapse and send along radioactive waste in the flood waters.

According to EPA, most phosphate mining occurs in Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee, with some activity in Utah and Idaho. Florida produces 80% of mined phosphate in the country, and is home to the world’s largest phosphate strip mine, which is 100,000 acres wide, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. It is at best mystifying that a state with many areas with relatively high water tables, and multiple regions at fairly low elevations, would permit these open-air pools of toxic wastewater, given that the warming climate is increasing extreme precipitation events and resultant flooding. Flooding in such areas can readily contaminate waterways and drinking water, as well as inundate infrastructure of all kinds. Any sort of compromise of these toxic holding pools can be an extreme threat to public health and safety.

The problem of waste ponds, lagoons, and other “holding features” for the waste from U.S. agricultural and industrial activity is huge, with 70 such phosphogypsum stacks, 700 coal-ash ponds (for waste from nearby coal-burning power generation facilities), and thousands of agricultural lagoons. The latter are primarily at large, industrial CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) raising beef cattle, dairy cows, and hogs. Florida has approximately 2,100 industrial wastewater holding facilities, including those at livestock CAFOs, which are notorious users of waste lagoons. All of these holding facilities are potential disasters come storms, hurricanes, increasing intense precipitation events, or failing infrastructure. Indeed, they’re environmentally noxious even absent such events.

At Piney Point, infrastructure had been failing for a while; that failure includes “tears in the plastic liner that holds wastewater.” There will also be environmental impact from the controlled releases into local waterways, as the NYT notes: “Even though the fear of a wider breach appears to have passed, there is likely to be environmental fallout from the emergency release of the polluted water, which also contains nutrients that could spur harmful algae blooms, followed by fish kills.”

Agricultural/CAFO lagoons — many of which are little more than unlined depressions in the soil — typically hold a mix of animal waste, water, and chemicals. These pools not only contaminate groundwater, but also, pollute the air with ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. When these sites receive heavy precipitation, or are otherwise flooded so that “you can’t manage the amount of water that’s coming in, you can end up with the bacteria, and chemicals, in the surface water, and on the land,” according to D’Ann Williams, a researcher for the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In 2019, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put the number of U.S. CAFOs at roughly 7,600. How many of these utilize waste lagoons is unknown, but it is not unreasonable to assume that most do. NRDC reported in 2019 on the incredibly poor state of federal data collection on CAFOs, noting: “A decade ago, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded that the EPA could not fulfill its regulatory duties under the Clean Water Act without accurate and facility-specific information about CAFOs. The EPA, for its part, has admitted that ‘unlike many other point source industries, the EPA does not have facility-specific information for all CAFOs in the United States.’”

Back when farming was not industrial, but conducted on a smaller scale with few (if any) chemical inputs, the manure from livestock was a useful and valued on-farm commodity with which to fertilize corn and other silage and crop fields. As industrial agriculture has become widespread, that practice is less common (except among some smaller-scale farmers, and certainly, organic farmers). Silage corn (for animal feed) is now mostly grown at huge scale with genetically modified seeds, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Composted manure still represents a strategy that would (and does) benefit agricultural systems. The obstacle to its broad re-adoption is that large industrial agricultural enterprises find it cumbersome to deploy, and would rather opt for cheap, destructive, synthetic fertilizers. This is a bad bet for a healthful and livable future.

At the scale at which CAFOs operate, there is far more manure generated than can be used on on-farm fields. An Environment America factsheet reports that a 2,500-head dairy farm generates as much waste as a city of 411,000 people. As synthetic fertilizers have largely replaced the use of manure, what to do with all that animal excrement? Basically, it is stored (with water added), untreated, in these huge pools or pits for as long as six months, during which time it decomposes anaerobically and releases methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). After that period, it is spread or sprayed on croplands. With that applied solution travel any pathogens, antibiotic and pesticide residues, and sometimes, trace heavy metals from animal feed, such as copper, zinc, and lead.

Percolating through the ground or running off of compacted or not-yet-thawed fields, this waste can enter and pollute ground and surface waters. Leaks or spills from these (generally unlined, but for a layer of clay) pits can similarly contaminate ground and surface waters (they are not infrequently sited quite close to existing rivers or streams). CAFO waste pits pollute local air, as noted. When this non-composted, untreated waste enters waterways, it can kill fish and other organisms downstream, and contribute to toxic algal blooms. A Chicago Tribune analysis of data from Illinois showed that, for example, hog CAFO spills and leaks killed 492,000 fish from 2005 through 2014. This toxic “storage” strategy is dangerous and unsustainable. The very creation of these huge holding ponds destroys habitat and compromises local ecosystems.

The nearly wholesale agricultural (and other land management) adoption of synthetic chemical fertilizers is contributing to multiple negative environmental and public health and safety problems. The demand for these fertilizers drives the mining of phosphate, with its nasty byproducts — toxic and radioactive waste “process” water and phosphgypsum stacks, respectively. The use of such fertilizers, which use petrochemicals (derived from fossil fuels) and phosphoric acid, among other ingredients, has generated the creation of thousands of manure-holding, noxious-gas-emitting, water-contaminating holding pits. The processing of mined sulfur, another ingredient, causes significant emissions of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere; this gas damages terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems through the increased acidity it causes in rainfall. Sulfur dioxide also contributes to the development and severity of human respiratory disorders. 

The nitrates in synthetic fertilizers degrade soil health, and are a huge cause, via agricultural runoff from fields, of nutrient deposition in waterways that can cause multiple environmental impacts. For example, nitrates not only disrupt the carbon-capturing activity of critical salt marshes, but also, create algal blooms and subsequent dead zones that cause eutrophication and hypoxia, killing off organisms and destroying marine ecosystems. In addition, nitrogen from chemical fertilizers escapes into the air on application, and is deposited in forest soils, where it is having serious ecosystem impacts, including decline of mycorrhizae, changes in species composition and diversity, and overall poorer ecosystem functioning because of trees’ increased vulnerability to insects, disease, freezing, and drought.

The excess nitrogen in these fertilizers is also driving global nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions dangerously high, exacerbating the climate crisis. Manufacturers of these fertilizers often use a nitrogen-heavy ratio of the three famous “NPK” inputs: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Nitrogen supports growth and photosynthesis (so plants “green up” readily), but too much can deplete other soil nutrients, inhibit development of flowers and fruit, and contribute to excess nitrate leaching into groundwater.

In its 2020 “Year in Review,” Beyond Pesticides quoted Jessica Shade, PhD of The Organic Center: “Many common organic farming practices — like composting and the use of manure fertilization in place of synthetic fertilizers — can recycle reactive nitrogen that is already in the global system, rather than introducing new reactive nitrogen into the environment, and thus have a much smaller environmental impact.”

A 2019 UN report cites synthetic fertilizers’ role in the “degradation of ecosystems, pollution of water systems from runoff, and contributions to climate change,” and says that “in light of these impacts, current and projected patterns of global pesticide and fertilizer use are not sustainable.”

There are some bright spots in the landscape: in 2020, South Portland, Maine passed legislation that bans the use of synthetic fertilizers, with few exceptions, as part of the city’s commitment to climate action and protection of its coastal waterways. Hyattsville, Maryland has established a law that prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers on city-owned and -managed property: “The City of Hyattsville shall only use natural organic fertilizers. The use of a synthetic fertilizer is prohibited on City-owned or -managed properties.” Beyond Pesticides encourages communities to recognize that organic land management requires only natural soil supplements that feed microbial soil life and sequester atmospheric carbon, and to work to enact local laws mandating the switch away from synthetics.

The reasons to shift agricultural and other land management practices to organics are legion but boil down to this: do we humans want to continue perpetuating systems that poison and degenerate human and ecosystem health, biodiversity, a livable climate, and functional soils that underlie all of those? Or do we want to make the transition to organic regenerative systems that eliminate the multiple thousands of toxic chemicals now in use, and instead, protect organisms (including people) from them, as well as enrich and vivify soils, sequester carbon, support healthy ecosystems, and nourish the living planet and its biomass? Beyond Pesticides is solidly in favor of the second option. Contact Beyond Pesticides for help with advancing organics in your community.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/climate/florida-ponds-toxic-waste.html

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

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