The price of plenty: Beneath the surface
Florida’s old phosphate mines have been turned into housing developments, parks, bass lakes, golf courses and restored habitat. Does “reclaiming” live up to the claims?
Thousands of people here call the subdivisions of Oakbridge and Grasslands home. The two communities boast large houses, sprawling golf courses and perfectly manicured lawns.
Michael Feist bought his first property in the area in the early 2000s. He didn’t know anything about the land’s history before it was a subdivision.
READ MORE: WUFT special report — The Price of Plenty
Under the carefully maintained grasses are 60- to-80 foot layers of former phosphate mine — stacks of clay, sand and topsoil dug up from the earth in the search for raw phosphate ore. From an industry perspective, a subdivision on that spot now means the land has been “reclaimed.”
“If you drive through there, it’s a country club, it’s a beautiful golf course, and the homes are beautiful,” Feist said. “That’s the side that everybody sees, but they don’t know what’s beneath the surface.”
Reclaiming the golden triangle
Since the late 19th century, Florida’s phosphate industry has been concentrated in Central Florida’s “Bone Valley,” where rich phosphate rock deposits formed millions of years ago when the peninsula was covered by an ancient sea. Before modern environmental laws, driving through the region meant views of gaping pits, stripped moonscapes and piled-up mining waste. As of 1975, all lands mined for phosphate had to be reclaimed.
Mines became parks, fishing lakes and golf courses. Some became homesites.
Many of these reclamation sites were in phosphate’s “golden triangle,” around Bartow, Lakeland and Mulberry.
Phosphate mining is strip-mining that clears the land in sections. First, 30 to 40 feet of “overburden” and then 15 to 25 feet of phosphate-containing layer called the matrix are dredged away with a drag line. What’s left is a landscape that looks otherworldly — a far cry from Florida’s lush natural lands. Dark, dusty soil forms hills that give way to cavernous pits where the earth was scooped out.
Reclaiming the land means putting it back to what the industry calls “beneficial use.” That could include turning it into farmland, forests, recreational areas such as parks and commercial areas, or wildlife habitats. The process involves dumping a mixture of sand and clay back into the mined pits along with topsoil.
Twenty-seven phosphate mines in Florida stretch across more than 450,000 acres, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Of these, nine mines are considered reclaimed. They’ve been flipped into blueberry fields or land for grazing cattle. Others are community parks on the fence lines of neighborhoods where children play or recreational ATV Parks where daredevils speed around the dusty, hilly land. And some are subdivisions.
Surprisingly little recent research has been done on the public health and safety of life atop old mines.
How safe are mined lands?
Mined phosphate ore is known to contain radioactive elements like uranium that decay into radon gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Significant exposure to radiation increases cancer risk, the EPA reports. The higher the dose, the greater the risk. Leukemia, breast, bladder, colon, liver, lung, esophagus, ovarian, and multiple myeloma and stomach cancers are all associated with radiation exposure.
Florida’s natural concentrations of uranium and radium are generally insignificant, according to the Florida Department of Health. But they “can become significant if the concentration increases through mining the ore, if the radionuclides dissolve in drinking water, or they build up in structures on the deposits.”
Everyone is exposed to some level of radiation from what’s in the land, radiation from space, indoor radon, medical x-rays and other exposures. Radiation exposure is measured in millirems (mrem). The Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute has reported that Floridians living on phosphate-mineralized land or land reclaimed after mining will have average exposure of about 250 mrem a year. The typical Floridian’s exposure is about 131.5 mrem a year, according to a state-by-state assessment by the EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air. The national average is closer to 620 mrem a year; Florida’s is a fraction of that owing to its low elevation and low natural uranium content compared with other states.
The health department’s Bureau of Radiation Control is required to test post-mined soils regularly and has found radiation levels range between three and 20 times higher than the state average. Agency and mining officials stress the state average is still lower than the national average. The agency has still not fulfilled a February public-records request for recent years’ reports.
In 2017, a class-action lawsuit against Drummond Co. alleged phosphate mining contaminated the property where Feist and his neighbors lived; that the reclamation was inadequate; and that Drummond failed to disclose “radiation contamination it knew permeated” the land. The ongoing suit seeks compensatory damages; medical testing and monitoring; and assessment and removal of any contaminants.
Drummond, originally a coal company, began extracting Florida phosphate through the Poseidon Mining Co in 1978. Drummond mined on about 1,400 acres before forming a partnership to start building commercial and residential developments, including Oakbridge and Grasslands.
Feist’s lawyer, Chris Nidel, said Oakbridge and Grasslands residents’ level of exposure to radioactive materials on their property is the equivalent of a weekly chest x-ray.
“The only question is whether that creates an unsafe risk,” Nidel said. “From my perspective, representing homeowners, any risk that I didn’t know about, that I wasn’t told about, of radiation is unacceptable.”
Drummond has denied any wrongdoing or negative health impacts and asked for a dismissal, which the court denied. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment. In court filings the company’s lawyers said that its reclamation activities were disclosed to the public, and that the Florida health department’s testing has found that radiation levels in Oakbridge and Grasslands are not harmful.
However, the personal radiation detector used by the state’s health department, called a RadEye device, is in dispute in the Drummond case. Nidel, with the D.C. environmental law firm Nidel and Nace, said it is inappropriate for testing radiation levels because it does not measure those that are naturally occurring.
Even Drummond’s expert, Randy Whicker, admitted the RadEye device used by Florida’s health department significantly underreports gamma radiation levels on the properties.
Feist said he joined the lawsuit out of concern for his family’s and other residents’ health. He owned two homes on the properties. He raised his daughter on the land.
“If there was a concern about the long-term health impact of living in this kind of environment, I want to do something about it, if not for myself, but really for my daughter and the people who are still living there and may not know that there may be an issue down the road,” Feist said.
A dearth of health studies
In another part of the Bone Valley — Mulberry — 79-year-old resident Carolyn Roberson lives in the tidy Paradise Lakes trailer park.
Roberson moved to Polk County from Massachusetts more than four decades ago after visiting a friend who lived in Lakeland.
“I came on vacation, and I liked it,” Roberson said. “I just decided I was going to pack up and move at the age of 35, and I did.”
Her hometown had nothing like Florida’s phosphate industry, she said. She marveled at both Florida’s beauty and the industry that surrounded her — massive draglines, mined land and the towering phosphogypsum stacks.
“It’s amazing to watch them grow from a little pile,” Roberson said. “They just keep getting bigger and bigger.”
She got a job at CF Industries, the largest fertilizer manufacturer in the United States. She’s since retired.
“I was looking to support myself and my kids,” she said. “I really wasn’t considering anything about the phosphate industry itself. It didn’t matter. I didn’t know anything about it.”
In 2010, she moved into her first home at Paradise Lakes, between the homes of two other women she befriended. Both neighbors had lived on the property for at least 20 years. Both developed cancer and died, Roberson said.
In 2018, Roberson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Recently, she said, two more residents developed cancer. Roberson said she didn’t know the neighborhood was built on reclaimed mining land or about any potential dangers until a neighbor posted about a lawsuit.
“I’m looking at all these houses that have been built on reclaimed land, I mean probably half of Lakeland and Mulberry, so I really don’t know if that’s a cause of illness or not,” Roberson said. “But, it just seems likely.”
Roberson said she doesn’t plan to leave. She beat cancer and is still living in Paradise Park, now in a different home.
“I’m not very wealthy,” she said. “It’s not like I can just pack up and leave now. I’ve already gone through all this. If anything else develops, there’s nothing I can do.”
Roberson would like to see more transparency about reclaimed lands. She also wishes she knew more about whether the industry poses a risk to people’s health.
“I’m older and it’s not like I have a long time to go,” Roberson said. “I think it’s more important for the younger people to be aware. If they come here and they buy one of these places, they need to be aware of the potential danger.”
At Tampa-based Mosaic Co., now the dominant phosphate company in the state after a series of mergers and acquisitions, spokeswoman Jackie Barron said the permitting process is exhaustively transparent, with years of public meetings and regulatory scrutiny. “There is nothing dangerous about reclaimed lands,” she said, from either a public health or environmental standpoint.
Decades-old health studies have linked Florida’s phosphate region to higher cancer risk. Men, though not women, were found to have higher rates of lung cancer in a study that stressed additional research was needed to find whether the difference might be occupational. However, little public-health research involving the industry has been carried out in the years since. Recent Florida university studies, funded by Mosaic, have researched market questions such as whether gypstack material might be recycled for roadbuilding.
The Florida Legislature set up the independent Florida Institute for Phosphate Research in 1978 to answer such questions. What’s now called the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute became part of Florida Polytechnic University in 2012. It’s charged by state statute to seek better practices for phosphate mining and processing and to “conduct or contract for studies on the environmental and health effects of phosphate mining and reclamation.” A growing chorus seeks updated research into the public health risks of living on old phosphate mines, as well as other health questions such as those surrounding a controversial proposal that passed the Florida Legislature this spring to test gyp-stack waste as a road-building material. Yet the research institute could provide no information on health or environment concerns on reclaimed mining lands, said Polytechnic spokeswoman Lydia Guzman.
Reclaimed lands and wildlife
In 2000, Henry Mushinsky, a University of South Florida biology professor who is now retired, would wake at 5:30 each morning to observe wildlife on reclaimed phosphate lands.
Fellow USF biology professor Earl McCoy and a team of grad students would arrive at different reclaimed habitats at 7 a.m. sharp, armed with animal traps, shovels and thick work boots.
The team was assessing how wild animals use reclaimed lands vs. unmined lands.
When Mushinsky first stepped on a piece of reclaimed land, he knew something was off. “If you’re a decent biologist, as soon as you walk on that property, you realize that there’s just no hope for it to be anything close to natural,” he said.
The group grew used to disappointment while surveying reclaimed lands.
The problem was the soils, he said. If mining companies returned sandy topsoils back into the ground, Mushinsky said it could work for reestablishing habitat. But on these reclaimed lands, the top layer was hard rock.
“No animal can burrow through that,” he said.“They (the phosphate industry) know how to fix the problem. It just costs a lot of money.”
Mushinsky has more hope for restoring wetlands, which he believes may be better able to re-establish biodiversity.
“Some of the wetlands they have restored are really quite pretty,” he said. “The wetlands reclamation is probably a lot more advanced than the uplands and dry habitats.”
USF’s research concluded that reclamation was inadequate to restore the wildlife populations on dry upland habitats and moderately wet flatland habitats that existed before mining.
Mosaic, created in a merger of Florida phosphate giants IMC Global and Cargill Crop Nutrition, takes pride in its restoration efforts. It has turned former mining sites into wetlands, public parks and recently, Streamsong Golf Resort — which it sold for $160 million in early 2023.
The company has paid more attention than its predecessors, Mushinsky said, putting more of the soils back. He argues that it’s still not enough.
Mosaic reclamation supervisor Lisa Lannon comes from a family of phosphate miners. She finds it rewarding to give mined lands new life with reclamation.
“We know that when we finish, they will be self-sustaining in the future,” she said.
From flowing streams to wetlands and scrub forests to recreational sites like parks or golf courses, reclamation is part science and part art, Lannon said.
Some areas become agricultural land and are leased out to farming operations. The company also owns some farmland, said Barron, the spokeswoman. They grow crops, including sod and blueberries, and even dabble in aquaculture, farming tilapia. She said Mosaic and its employees are committed to the environment and minimizing the impact of mining on it.
“These are the places we live, work, raise our kids,” she said. “We want it to be successful.”
In order to get a permit to mine new land, the company must submit its plans for reclamation and have them approved by three levels of government — county, state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It can take up to 10 years and can look different for different lands, Barron said.
For the most part, Mosaic’s reclamation team attempts to restore the land “acre for acre, type for type” — returning it to its original landscape.
“Many times we’re leaving the land in better condition than it was when we showed up there,” Barron said.
In some cases, counties may request the land be reclaimed for public use like Hardee County’s Hardee Lakes, which consists of horse, biking and hiking trails as well as campground sites.
Reclaiming land can take up to 20 years as the company replants small saplings of native plants and reintroduces wildlife like the gopher tortoise or scrub jays. Hurricanes and invasive species like wild hogs pose risks to the reclamation process. After Hurricane Ian, the company had to replant many of its saplings at younger reclamation sites, Lannon said.
The county, state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers monitor these sites extensively until the land is released, Barron said. They test soil and water quality to ensure they meet standards required by the EPA.
At older sites, they can let nature take over, Lannon said. After all, the whole point of reclamation is to create a self-sustaining area.
Biodiversity is measured at these sites through qualitative assessments and annual reports conducted by ecologists and engineers.
When land is considered fully reclaimed in accordance with the submitted permit, the operator of the mine is “released” from responsibility for maintaining the land.
“You probably won’t even notice if you drive by reclaimed areas,” Barron said. “It looks like we were never there.”
Ragan Whitlock, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, disagrees. He said the landscapes achieved by reclamation are meant to look like “a reasonable facsimile” of the original environment, but they tend to miss the mark. Streamsong Golf Resort is an example. Admirers tout the land as reminiscent of Scotland or Ireland.
“No one has ever looked at the Streamsong Golf Resort and said this looks like Florida,” Whitlock said.
Phosphate strip-mining creates massive disfigurations of the landscape. The Center is concerned, like Mushinsky, about whether Florida’s rich biodiversity could ever be replaced on mined lands where all life has been scraped away.
“It doesn’t look like how the landscape was before the mining activities ever took place,” Whitlock said. “There has never been a study that shows that a reclaimed mine site can support the same level of biodiversity that an unmined site can.”
Reclaiming for recreation
The Tenoroc Public Use Area, a series of public lakes north of Lakeland, is today more known for its largemouth bass than the phosphate mines that once scarred the land.
The 7,300-plus acres of reclaimed land boasts tall, green pine trees; lush, swampy wetlands and 24 lakes filled with freshwater fish like bass, tilapia or catfish. Visitors can fish, hike, bike or shoot guns at an on-site range.
Decades ago, the fish-management area was mined by the Coronet, Smith-Douglass and Borden phosphate companies.
It was gifted to the state in the 1980s and reclaimed. Now, it’s managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Much like the flipped name from C-o-r-o-n-e-t to T-e-n-o-r-o-c, the grounds have been transformed. A sign that reads “From Mine to Yours” greets visitors at the entrance and tells the site’s history.
“Tenoroc’s history as a phosphate mine has resulted in unique public recreational opportunities today,” the sign reads. But the environmental history, recorded in 2001 EPA drafts that revealed elevated levels of radiation in the soils, is buried with the phosphate matrix.
One weekend in April, Karen Phillips, a 66-year-old Lakeland resident, read a book as her grandson fished at Tenoroc’s Sunshine Bass Pier.
Faint gunfire interrupted the bird chirps and humming insects. A thick heat filled the air. Too hot to fish, Phillips said, but she brought her grandson anyway.
They visit every other week. Sometimes more, like during the 9-year-old’s spring break, when he chose to break out his fishing rod nearly every day. The pair loves Tenoroc.
Glenn Compton is chairman of Manasota-88, a nonprofit that has spent more than half a century fighting the phosphate industry’s expansion in Florida. Like other environmental advocates and residents interviewed, Compton wants to see more stringent regulation — and independent public-health research to assure Floridians that reclaimed areas do not pose elevated risks for people, wildlife and water.
“Land was already naturally made perfect,” Compton said. “And there’s no reasonable expectation that we should put our faith in an industry who makes billions of dollars every year off of our precious resources to recreate what nature has already made.”
Compton and Mushinsky both said that fishes in formerly mined lakes such as Tenoroc should be sampled for radioactivity and hazardous elements. Fisheries scientists said they don’t know of independent research on fish in Florida’s many restored phosphate lakes, though such studies have been carried out elsewhere, including Idaho.
Phillips, fishing with her grandson, has lived in Lakeland, surrounded by industry, for her entire life. She recalls swimming in old phosphate pits and watching as companies gutted the land for the fertilizer-making material.
She’s never given much thought to reclaimed land and its health. After all, sites like Tenoroc are brimming with life.
“Nice thing about when they reclaim is they plant all of this, and they feed the waters,” she said. “They give back.”
While Phillips’ grandson loves catching the fish, Phillips said, he always returns his catches.
They have never eaten the fish.
This story is part of The Price of Plenty, a special project investigating fertilizer from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, supported by the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.