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Phosphate processing plants in the greater Tampa Bay region have caused some of Florida's worst environmental disasters. Accidents like the spill at the former Piney Point plant fill the history books in Florida.

A water spill at a Mosaic phosphate mine floods creek in southeast Hillsborough

Road view of Four Corners Mine
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Four Corners Mine

About 6 million gallons of water was released after a pipe broke at Mosaic's Four Corners phosphate mine.

State environmental officials are investigating a recent water spill at an active phosphate mine in southeast Hillsborough County owned by The Mosaic Company. Part of the 6 million gallons of water released ended up in a nearby creek.

Mosaic reported that discharge from a pipe break at the Four Corners Mine happened Oct. 2.

The spill was water from a pipeline used for transferring sand to reclamation areas within the mine about 10 miles east of Sun City Center. About 6 million gallons of turbid water was sent to a ditch that leads into a waterway called Hurrah Creek.

Mosaic told investigators most of the sand — which contains particulates — had settled before the water discharged. Company spokeswoman Jackie Barron said by the time state regulators took water samples the afternoon of the spill, the water was back within permitted levels downstream of a turbidity barrier they installed.

This event was nothing like other spills at gypsum stacks, which contain toxic byproducts of phosphate mining. The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating, and could assess fines and penalties.

Here's part of the response from DEP:

"On Saturday, Oct. 2, DEP received notice from Mosaic of an unauthorized turbid water discharge from a pipeline used for transferring sand to reclamation areas within the mine. Mosaic reported to the department that a pipe break had caused the discharge, but the sand material from the pipe did not leave the site. However, approximately six million gallons of water discharged to a roadside ditch that leads to Hurrah Creek. According to Mosaic, the water is used to pump the sand into the reclamation area, but most of the sand had settled before the water discharged.

Since the water is used to pump sand to the reclamation areas, turbidity is the main concern from this release. To be clear, this water is not wastewater or process water from a stack. This facility is a mine and, as such, does not have a phosphogypsum stack system. Best-management practices, including turbidity curtains, were immediately deployed in the creek to mitigate this and prevent turbid water from entering the waterway.

DEP sent an inspector to the site the same day, Oct. 2, to investigate. At this time, our investigation into this matter remains open and ongoing. DEP’s environmental specialists are working to obtain and assess all necessary information and data to complete our regulatory review. DEP is also working to determine causes and possible solutions to prevent unauthorized discharges in the future. We remain in constant communication with the facility as they develop their plans to address these issues. The department will hold the facility accountable by identifying necessary restoration and/or remediation actions, with the possibility of enforcement including fines and penalties for associated violations.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.