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Tampa Bay Times acknowledges its recent stories on Mosaic spill are inaccurate

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Last week, the Tampa Bay Times quoted two retired hydrology experts who slammed the phosphate giant Mosaic and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection over the massive sinkhole that exploded under a gypsum stack at Mosaic’s New Wales plant in Mulberry last summer, resulting in 215 million gallons of radioactive wastewater released into the Florida aquifer.

Don Rice and Mary Hrenda told the Times that a full year before the incident, monitoring wells around the stack showed a sinkhole was developing, and that both Mosaic and the DEP should have been aware of the sinkhole at the time. The information was also presented at a news conference last Friday with environmental groups in Manatee County.

“They should have seen this 2016 sinkhole coming,” Rice told the Times last Thursday. “Alarm bells should have been going off — danger, danger!”

Now the Times acknowledges that Rice and Hrenda have retracted their statements.

“News organizations routinely cover disputes between two credible sides, and that’s what we did in our original story,” says Jennifer Orsi, managing editor of the Times, in an email. “Mosaic, which declined to discuss the allegations for that story, responded the next day, and we covered that as well. Now, the hydrologists quoted in our original story have retracted their findings and expressed regret, which we will cover in a story on the front page of Wednesday’s Tampa Bay Times. Stories evolve, and we routinely cover those steps as they happen.”

Upon publication of the story Friday, both the DEP and Mosaic strongly disputed the report, and on Tuesday the first independently affiliated group, a relatively new organization based in Florida called the Center for Sustainability and Conservation (CFSC) weighed in.

The group released findings from an independent, Florida-licensed geologist, which also contradicted information originally published in the Times about the genesis of last year’s spill.

“Our geologist concluded that the increase in water levels were due to a grouting program in the area and not the precursor to a sinkhole. In his opinion, an indication of a sinkhole would have produced a drop in water levels, not an increase,” said Dave Gray, founder and Executive Director of CFSC.

Gray said he had his own independent Florida-licensed geologist, Abner Patton, reviewed the data and information Rice provided to environmental groups at last week’s news conference.

In his report, Abner writes that the “significant rise in water levels” in the three recognized aquifers near the New Wales facility “is not related to an event associated with the 2016 sinkhole collapse. In fact, our interpretation would be just the opposite response, significant decline in water levels would have occurred as the sinkhole was developing.”

Abner also refers to a grouting program conducted in the spring and summer of 2015. He notes that it is his interpretation that significant level changes in the three wells “are the result of a successful grouting program within the confining unit.”

“The data and information surrounding Florida’s natural resources and geology are complex and multidisciplined,” Gray said. “It is imperative that everyone understands such data can be used to draw false claims and manipulate conclusions to different outcomes, especially if examined by someone who is not licensed in Florida and does not have a thorough understanding of Florida’s unique geology.”

Rice and Hrenda, who is his wife, both worked as hydrologists in New Jersey, not Florida.

The Times report was challenged last week by the DEP, which said that the data in question have “nothing to do with the formation of the 2016 sinkhole.”

“The data the Tampa Bay Times provided is referring to monitoring wells under the closed North stack at the New Wales facility, which was closed in 2005, not under the South stack where the 2016 sinkhole formed,” the DEP said on Friday.

“I don’t think they did their diligence on evaluating the data, I think they chose some data they thought could carry a message and ran with it, whether or not that message was correct,” said David Jellerson, Mosaic’s Senior Director of Environmental and Phosphate Projects.

At the news conference in front of the Manatee County Commission last Friday, a host of environmental groups called for an investigation of the DEP, and said they were sending a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and State Attorney General Pam Bondi. It was signed by Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Center for Biological Diversity, People for Protecting the Peace River, ManaSota-88, Sierra Club Manatee-Sarasota and Saving the Face of Florida.

They said that the agency was “negligent, possibly criminally negligent” when it failed to recognize warning signs of a sinkhole and taking preventive measures to drain the stack.

On Wednesday, Mosaic officials are set to go before the Manatee County Commission over the proposal to approve the expansion of a phosphate mine on a 3,600-acre plot in Myakka City. The environmental groups strongly oppose the plan.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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