Earlier this month, a reservoir holding byproducts from an old phosphate mining operation just south of me in Florida at Piney Point came in imminent danger of a collapse that would spill an incredible amount of wastewater into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The situation has thus far kind of stabilized. There is no 20-foot wall of water barreling down to the ocean. The discharges are being monitored and, so far, meet water quality standards. But, sitting here thinking about it and reading reports from various news agencies, I realized something. We suck at this.
Overall, our solid waste management is among the best in the world, but we have not quite figured out wastewater. The textbooks I have been pouring through for the past three years are riddled with incidents of tailings dams and reservoirs failing along with other disasters that affect both human and environmental health. Yet, all over the country we are having to push back on new sites and developments. See Bristol Bay and the Boundary Waters and the entire state of Florida.
I am not going to go into detail about each disaster because, frankly, there are too many to count. Also, there are much more qualified men and women we should be listening to. What I will do is dive into my own observations as to why this keeps happening.
Reading articles by different news agencies, one can see the same biases that have plagued our media for years. One side obfuscates facts while the other cries that the sky is falling. True, the water at Piney Point is not necessarily toxic but it is nutrient-laden and acidic. A massive release could, in theory, fuel algae blooms similar or worse to the events that shut down the redfish and snook fisheries in this area while many other marine life forms will also die. But that has not happened yet.
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The other end of the spectrum tends to push unhelpful and oversimplistic viewpoints. Water management is much more complicated than #senditsouth and while some industries are to blame, the source of the problem can often be found in the mirror. Many of the nutrients that end up in our waterways did not come from large-scale agriculture. They came from our yards and neatly manicured golf courses that we covered with non-native grasses that cannot survive on their own where we chose to plant them. But this seems lost on those that always want to point the finger at Big Evil Ag. Meanwhile, we work feverishly to develop every inch of green.
It has been estimated that worldwide only about 1.2% of mining operations that utilize holding ponds or reservoirs experience a failure. A 98.8% success rate sounds pretty good until you consider that about three tailing dams fail every year around the world. Three potentially ecosystem altering incidents every year. One day, it might happen in your own backyard. Some are hastened by natural disasters such as earthquakes. Many are known issues that go largely ignored for decades. Meanwhile, the infrastructures are aging and either there is no money to fix it or the original owner has pawned it off to someone else.
Piney Point might result in massive fish kills but the area could avoid tragedy. But imagine if it were millions and millions of gallons of acid leachate from copper sulfide mining being dumped near a major US port city or one of the most important salmon runs in the world. These things actually fail all the time, yet we are told they are safe and conveniently ignore the track record for the sake of jobs (temporary) or technological advancement (fleeting).
Time will only tell what effect Piney Point will have. Hopefully, it will cause us to look for real solutions instead of catchphrases and finger pointing. As I said before, the subject could fill libraries and there are professional ladies and gentlemen out there working on it every day. Listen to what they have to say. Conduct independent research. Ask questions and get involved at the local level. Aldo Leopold once said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Think about if a project is truly trying to preserve the biotic community in an ethical way and weigh the risks with the reward.