Wednesday, 29 July 2009

New pressures in the phosphate dilemma

Watching the American phosphate dilemma these days is like watching two trains streaking toward each other on a single track, headed for a wreck.

One locomotive is powered by growing food demand and rising food prices, which leads to a greater need for phosphate fertilizer. As USDA's Economic Research Service explained recently in the March issue of Amber Waves, the jump in food prices from 2006 to 2008 led to a corresponding spike in fertilizer prices. Phosphate prices jumped 93 percent in just 12 months, reflecting high demand and low supplies [Update July 30: In the comments, R points out that the prices fell part way back again after 2008 and suggests that international capacity may respond fully within a few years]. Phosphate inventories fell 27 percent in the most recent data available (2007): "Domestic and foreign fertilizer producers were not able to quickly adjust production as inventories dwindled." These trends generate a huge economic incentive for increased phosphate production.

The other locomotive is fueled by the growing environmental constraints on phosphate mining. As we noted briefly a couple weeks ago, 75% of U.S. phosphate fertilizer comes from strip mines in Florida, and it is not clean work.

Though one can find sources more critical of the mining industry, my favorite source for explaining the complex array of environmental problems is the comparatively industry-friendly Florida Institute of Phosphate Research. Here is where things stand according to FIPR's detailed phosphate primer. Sure, phosphate mining generates radioactive waste, due to radon and other naturally occurring substances, and, sure, the level of radioactivity in most Florida phosphate byproduct waste exceeds EPA limits for agricultural or road-building uses. However, the radioactivity is not very dangerous and probably is not the worst environmental concern from phosphate mining.

The honor of worst environmental concern might go to the air pollution (dust or flouride contaminants), or maybe the water pollution (heavy metals or fish-damaging acidity). Under routine operation using best practices, water contamination can be prevented, FIPR explains. "There is, however, the possibility of an accidental spill like the one that occurred in December 1997 when acidic water from a Mulberry Corporation phosphogypsum stack spilled into the Alafia River." It gets worse: "Improving the quality and reducing the quantity of the process water became an even higher priority for the phosphate industry after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inherited three phosphogypsum stacks with full ponds when Mulberry Corporation (a chemical processing company) declared bankruptcy in January 2001. These ponds contained billions of gallons of acidic water. Two stacks are in Mulberry in Polk County, where there was a spill in 1977 and one was at Piney Point in Manatee County where a spill would endanger Bishops Harbor, a prized estuary."

But, even the spills may not be the most serious environmental constraint. From FIPR's phosphate primer, the worst constraint may simply be the opportunity cost of blighted land that is occupied by the mountains of phosphogypsum waste (1 billion tons in 25 "stacks" in Florida, with 30 million new tons each year) or the thousands of acres of clay settling ponds (occupying 40% of the land area of the extraction operations even after the operation is completed). In FIPR's characteristically understated account of the clay settling ponds: "Research has proven that there are uses for the land, but the uses are limited by the properties of the clay that leave the settling areas unstable. There is a strong public desire to cut down on the number of settling areas created." Indeed, FIPR's phosphate primer perceives growing residential populations, not limited supplies, as the fundamental constraint on increased production in Florida. You can just hear the tone of regret: "There is a deposit around the Boyette area in Hillsborough County, for example, that will likely never be mined because the land over it has been developed."

[Update July 30: An initial version of this post yesterday evening had photographs of a mine, from my recent field trip in Florida, but further investigation shows it may have been a cement or building materials mine. I'll add the photographs back if I can confirm that it was a phosphate mine. Meanwhile, here are links to Florida phosphate mining photographs from a historical archives, a recent class trip, and a stock photo.]

The public relations folks for Mosaic, the largest mining company and a former Cargill subsidiary, avoided mining images in the following video [Update July 30: slightly toned down my description of this video]. Yet, hidden behind all of the orange tree groves and green soccer fields in the video, I think you can probably imagine in your mind the gray wasteland and hear the mechanical roar of the dominant image the film-makers excluded.

I haven't seen Florida phosphate mining in the news much lately. But, watching the trajectory of phosphate fertilizer on the one hand, and environmental constraints in Florida on the other, I'll hazard a prognostication. One way or another, the phosphate fertilizer industry will come to a collision in the next couple years with sufficient force to make the news.

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