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Class Sues Fertilizer Giant Over Massive Spill

(CN) - Residents living near fertilizer giant Mosaic's New Wales, Florida phosphate processing plant claim in a federal class action that a "toxic radioactive wastewater" spill from the facility earlier this month has contaminated their water.

Mosaic announced the spill on September 11 — two weeks after company officials noticed a sinkhole opened up under a pool of acidic wastewater called a gypsum stack. This water — a cocktail of chemicals and minerals with low levels of radiation is created during Mosaic's processing of phosphate into fertilizer.

The sinkhole, 45-feet-wide and of a still unknown depth, swallowed an estimated 215 million gallons of the wastewater. The company confirmed the wastewater reached the Florida aquifer, the state's main source of drinking water.

About 5,000 residents live within five miles of the processing plant — the largest in the world and a majority of households use private wells.

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Mosaic hired a third-party to perform tests on wells in the area. So far, tests on 52 wells near Mosaic's processing plant have not found any contaminants, according to Mosaic and Florida's DEP.

"We immediately took steps to remove as much water from the leaking process pond as possible, and are now operating a recovery well to remove the rest of the water from the aquifer," said Walt Precourt, Mosaic's Senior Vice President of Phosphates, in a statement. "Based on extensive monitoring data, no water from the stack has migrated off our property."

"Our Mosaic team continues to work around the clock to review the situation, and our response to it," he continued. "We continue to analyze the situation, and our response to it, and we realize we could have done a better job in providing timely information to our neighbors and the broader community."

But attorney Frank Petosa of the Morgan & Morgan Complex Litigation Group, which is representing the class, said residents are unsure if the testing results are reliable.

"There needs to be frequent monitoring and testing of wells in the surrounding community," he said. "Taking one test, one time is not sufficient."

The Florida DEP is not yet commenting on possible fines related to the sinkhole spill.

"While there continues to be no evidence of offsite movement or threat to offsite groundwater supplies, DEP will continue to ensure Mosaic's efforts properly resolve this issue," said DEP Secretary Jon Steverson in a statement. "Once the issues surrounding this sinkhole are resolved, DEP will finalize its ongoing investigation to determine any necessary accountability measures to ensure this doesn't happen again."

Mosaic has a history of environmental problems near its mines and processing plants.

Last year, the company reached a nearly $2 billion settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for alleged violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for improper storage of billons of gallons of hazardous waste. The settlement is the largest of its kind.

This sinkhole is also not the first to open up at the New Wales processing plant. In 1994, a 120-foot-wide sinkhole spilled contaminated water into the Florida aquifer. More recently, in 2009, a sinkhole at a processing plant in north Florida spilled several million gallons of wastewater.

"They would not be considered a good neighbor to the residents around the plant," Petosa said.

Earlier this year, Mosaic announced plans to expand mining operations in three Florida counties.

"Enough is enough," said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Florida must finally take a stand against this destructive, radioactive phosphate mining that is putting our health and environment at risk."

Even Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton commented on the incident while campaigning in the state this week.

"For goodness sake, people are entitled to clean water," Clinton told a local TV station, before releasing a transcript of her comments to the public. "People are entitled to know what is in their water and companies that profit off of common resources need to be held liable when something goes wrong. So I have a very clear view about this: polluters should pay to clean up the messes that they have created."

The class wants Mosaic to pay for independent water testing within a five-mile radius of the sinkhole and any property damage related to the spill. They are also seeking unspecified damages.

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