Faulty sinkhole reporting becomes hard lesson on rushing to judgment

mosaic flag copy

Big business is not automatically bad business.

The Tampa Bay Times learned a hard lesson about assumptions and the truth this week after publishing the opinions of two retired scientists who accused Mosaic Co. and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection of ignoring warnings of a growing sinkhole on Mosaic property.

While the allegations fed into a popular narrative of a nefarious corporation and government incompetence which led an environmental crisis, the claims were also something else.

They were simply not true.

An editorial from the Ledger of Lakeland admirably points out that the Times’ rush to judgment proves “how wrong such assumptions can be, and maybe the experience can teach us about the drawbacks of jumping the gun before making accusations.”

In other words, the Ledger editorial board notes, when “bad things happen” it does not mean all “big businesses corrupt and perpetually up to no good.” Nor does it suggest all government regulators are “incompetent, somehow in cahoots with companies, or unwilling to challenge them.”

Don Rice, a former hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and his wife, Mary Hrenda, a former hydrologist with the Department of Environmental Protection in New Jersey, told reporter Craig Pittman that Mosaic failed to recognize something was “horribly wrong” at the company’s New Wales facility in Mulberry. The couple said data from on-site monitoring wells could have warned Mosaic a year before the sinkhole formed last summer. hey had, Mosaic could have proactively pumped off excess radiated water atop a stack of waste gypsum.

In addition to talking with the Times, Rice offered his conclusions in a news conference with environmentalists ahead of a vote to expand Mosaic’s mining operations in Manatee County.

Rice painted Mosaic and the Florida DEP as villains, allowing millions of gallons of contaminated water to enter the region’s water supply. Both scientists were supported by Suncoast Waterkeeper, an anti-mining group calling for state and federal officials to investigate Mosaic and the DEP.

Turns out, they were all wrong.

Mosaic and DEP responded by providing proof that Rice and Hrenda had misread the data. Readings from the well in question were shown to be from a massive 1994 sinkhole located on the opposite end of the company’s property. Changes in the Floridan aquifer Rice was talking about were, in fact, from remediation efforts.

After initially doubling down, Rice and Hrenda ultimately retracted their accusations.

“We made a mistake,” Rice told the Times. “We sincerely regret our error.”

Unfortunately, the Times did not elaborate further on the error.

Eileen Stuart, Mosaic Fertilizer vice president of public affairs/phosphates, in a letter to the editor Thursday, also pointed several red flags in Times’ misreported article, such as the incorrect location of the well in question, as well as the “unsurprising and expected” rise in water levels, which had been planned and reported to the DEP.

She also questioned the sources, saying that they were known opponents to the phosphate industry in Florida, and even cautioned Pittman against writing the story with the faulty data.

“Our concerns were disregarded,” Stuart says.

In the Times’ rush to print “without verifying the legitimacy,” Stuart wonders if a similar story would’ve been published if Mosaic was the only source.

“Likely not,” she says.

“We hope this incident creates a constructive dialogue within the newsroom in St. Petersburg,” Stuart concludes. “And that the result is a stronger adherence to the principles of responsible journalism.”

“They were right. I was wrong,” Rice later told the Bradenton Herald. “I made a mistake, Mary, too; and we regret the error.”

While the couple’s mea culpa may be admirable, it should serve as a warning for the Times and everyone — not every corporation is in it for themselves at the expense of the environment and people’s lives.

Yes, companies should always be held accountable when things go wrong, but accusations should be based on facts, not emotion. We have been conditioned to automatically assume a company is at fault, which leads to rushes to judgment as in the Rice-Hrenda episode.

While it may surprise some, Mosaic Co’s priority is doing the right thing for Florida’s water supply and its environment.

“But the overriding concern should be that our indictment of them must be fair and based on provable, readily understood facts,” the Ledger writes. “Which wasn’t the case here.”

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also the publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

One comment

  • Glen Gibellina

    February 16, 2017 at 10:31 pm

    Commissioners Show True Colors in Mining Permit

    John Rehill•Thursday, Feb 16, 2017
    BRADENTON — Wednesday’s special land use meeting gave citizens an idea as to just how much pull Mosaic Mining has in Manatee County. No matter how much tweaking, twisting and turning commissioners performed on Mosaic’s dialog, it all sounded like they were lying to themselves in order to convince everyone else, or lying to everyone else to convince themselves.

    Wednesday was the third day of a quasi-judicial process targeted to get Mosaic Mining a zoning change and a Master Mining Plan that would allow the $20 billion company the right to extend their current phosphate mining at their Wingate East mine in east Manatee County.

    Mosaic wants to add 3,596 additional acres to their portfolio of scorched earth at Wingate, while destroying 327 acres of wetlands in the process. But that’s not all: the proposed mining is in the Myakka River and Peace River watersheds.

    On January 26, Mosaic made their case before the BOCC. That lasted the entire day and commissioners scheduled another Special Land Use Meeting for January 30, just to finish public comment. At that meeting, of almost 100 speakers, over 90 percent spoke against approving the mining permit. They spent the day destroying most of what Mosaic’s special teams delivered with perhaps the best collection of informed citizens the county has ever seen.

    Mosaic’s small army of expert witnesses
    PhD’s in the environmental sciences, land use lawyers, a hydrologist, medical doctors and a truck load of common sense pounded away at Mosaic’s presentation. They quoted state statutes, multiple sections in the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan and case law that many felt should have sent Mosaic back to the drawing board.
    On top of the plethora of detailed information that challenged almost everything Mosaic presented at the January 6 meeting, was a parade of citizens pleading to commissioners not to unleash the tragedies that often follow Mosaic around, onto their lives.

    Mosaic had originally scheduled the request for zoning change and master plan back in August of 2016, but a giant sinkhole opened up at their New Wales Phosphate facility just days before that scheduled meeting, sucking 215,000,000 toxic gallons into the aquifer.

    At the January 30 meeting, commissioners were given many documents and testimony confirming the careless way Mosaic often operates. Dozens of documents citing Mosaic’s operations for out of compliance, broken meters and requests for additional wells, confirmed that the company tends to produce critical water issues.

    With the Wingate extension in the Myakka and Peace River watersheds, citizens had reason for concerns. But none of that or any other concerns were going to stop Mosaic from getting what they always get; which is to say, whenever they want it.

    When Commission Chair Betsy Benac was asked at Wednesday’s meeting whether Mosaic donated to her recent reelection campaign, Benac said it wasn’t any of the public’s business and refused to answer further.

    Many of Mosaic’s teammates felt the privilege to not answer questions as well. But you can’t blame them. Manatee County Attorney, William Clague told Mosaic’s attorney that if he didn’t think the question was appropriate, he shouldn’t answer it, and told others there to be questioned to do the same.

    Mosaic Mine Permitting Manager, Bart Arrington, and the Mosaic’s lead attorney, Hugh McGuire.

    One of Mosaic’s specialists, John E. Garlanger, stated, “There is no risk of the a dam (the berms they construct to capture fugitive water) breaking, or a water spill in the watershed.” Garlanger said there weren’t any breaches in the past. One would only have to Google “Mosaic Spills” to get the real story on that.

    Shannon Gonzales, PWS, Mosaic’s wetland specialist said, a created wetland’s water level and functionality is immediate, adding, “although the canopy takes time to come back, the success rate is 100 percent.” Gonzalis also told the commission that the proposed mitigated wetlands will have a UMAM score of .73 or higher, “and that’s a high rated wetland,” Gonzales said. A 7th grade science text book seemed to be in order.

    Mosaic’s Janis Britt said, “There isn’t any history of harmful radiation coming from rehabbed land.” That may be true were it not for the community of Kathleen, outside of Lakeland. There, is the only real community built of reclamation land. Through the ’70s and ’80s, and into the ’90s, a community of 4,000 filed thousands of complaints of radiation and radon gas poising. In the late ’90s, the EPA called it a Superfund Site, saying clean-up could cost as much as $9 billion.

    Wednesday was painful, except for the absolute brilliance and commitment of two Commissioners Robin DiSabatino and Charles Smith. They didn’t fall for the fear factor of betraying the Mosaic rule.

    I don’t believe anyone at Wednesday’s meeting left without enormous praise for both DiSabatino and Smith, with the most common sentiment being that they are the only commissioners who listen to and fight for the citizens of Manatee County. As for the rest of the board members, they were often difficult to distinguish from the mining company’s paid employees.

    The motion to approve both the zoning and the master mining plan—with the stipulation a reduced set-back and a special approval not be included—was approved, 5-2, with only Commissioners DiSabatino and Smith dissenting, while Commissioners Whitmore, Benac, Baugh, Jonsson and Trace sided with Mosaic.

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