Florida’s Environmental Issues and the Price of Unchecked Development

Happy Earth Week and #EHW2021! Guest blog post by Jason Vuic, author of The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream (available now for preorder, and on sale June 2021)

In early April 2021, to honor the U.S. Senate’s “Small Business of the Week,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) was in Tampa touring Fresco Foods, Inc., a family-run pre-packaged meals company that had survived the COVID-19 pandemic and kept its employees working through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, a program which Rubio had helped to devise. The focus should have been on Fresco, but at that moment, across Tampa Bay in Manatee County, the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack was leaking. A phosphogypsum stack?  Most Floridians had never heard of a phosphogypsum stack, but, as Rubio spoke at Fresco, some 200 million gallons of nitrogen-rich waste water were pouring, untreated, from a hole in a retaining pond on the top of the stack and into Tampa Bay.

Although famed for its beaches, Florida is also an agricultural state that produces not only oranges and sugar, but a quarter of the world’s phosphate, a key component in the production of fertilizer. It’s a nasty business, in which large and powerful corporations strip-mine phosphate-rich lands to the east of Tampa, and pile the waste product, a powdery-white and slightly-radioactive compound called phosphogypsum, into mountain-sized stacks. Today, Florida has 24 stacks. They are hundreds of feet high and more than a mile long each, and together contain a billion tons of phosphogypsum.  Too expensive to move and having no practical use whatsoever, the stacks each have a retaining pond with hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater on top. They rupture occasionally, and one in 2016 in Mulberry developed a sinkhole under it that sucked 215 million gallons into the aquifer.   

At a press conference at Fresco, Rubio expressed his concern. “There’s going to be a negative impact” from this, he said.  Because with each new leak, “you’re putting nutrients, contaminated water, into a sensitive wildlife area, [so] we could see some really bad stuff. Algae blooms, fish kills.  It’s not good.” To Rubio, Florida’s phosphogypsum stacks were a “ticking time bomb,” because no one knows what to do with them. They come from an earlier age, from the post-World War II-period through, say, 1970, when, in Florida, environmental regulations and commonsense planning restrictions were unknown. Consider this: prior to 1970, only municipalities, meaning cities and towns, had the blanket legal authority, under Florida law, to insist on building codes or basic rules regarding planning and zoning.  

Therefore, big industrial concerns who operated outside of municipalities could do whatever they wanted to do. They could build what they build, and largely dump what they wanted to dump, and no one could tell them not to. So in Manatee County, we get a phosphate processing plant and phosphogypsum stack less than 1,000 yards from the water. In 1966, building them there made sense to the Borden Chemical Company, which saved money by processing phosphate near the port where it shipped it. Now Borden is gone and its successor company went bankrupt in 2011. There’s a mountain of phosphogypsum just sitting there, leaking, and taxpayers are left holding the bag.  

But what’s new? In Florida, taxpayers are always left holding the bag, forking out millions, perhaps billions, now and in the future for a lack of business regulation 60 and sometimes 70 years in the past. And it’s not just phosphate that’s a problem.  In the early post-war period, land developers built whole communities in Florida with little regulatory input at all. Take Cape Coral, for example, a city of 180,000 on the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers. Built in 1957 by brothers Jack and Leonard Rosen, two mail-order shampoo salesmen from Baltimore, Cape Coral was a low-lying bit of swamp and timberland that the Rosens dredged and filled to create over 100,000 home sites and more than 400 miles of canals—more canals than any other city in the world.

Without needing so much as a building permit, the Rosens bulldozed a wetland; bad enough, but their gargantuan canal network, the purpose of which was to maximize land sales, brought billions of gallons of saltwater up and into the river where it will never leave. And, since the Rosens weren’t required by the government to provide a water treatment plant, early residents used wells, so in time, saltwater ate through the well casings and into the aquifer.    

Therefore, today, Cape Coral has to purify its water through an uber-expensive reverse osmosis system, and the Army Corps of Engineers must balance the inflow of saltwater into the Caloosahatchee by periodically releasing nutrient-polluted freshwater from locks upriver on Lake Okeechobee.  

This exacerbates red tide, which kills fish and fouls beaches, and costs the state billions of dollars in business—all because of unchecked development in the 1950s. The fact is, many of Florida’s environmental problems can be traced to this era, from its “ticking time bomb” phosphogypsum stacks to its dredged estuaries to its leaking septic tanks to its invasive species to its endless exurban sprawl. Is there a solution for this?  Short of moving people out of Florida’s watersheds and away from its estuaries, no. But there’s a lesson here: unchecked development has a price, and failing to plan now or to even respect planning and zoning laws as necessary to Florida life, will cost the state and those who live there for decades to come. 

Jason Vuic is the author of The Yucks!: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History and The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History.