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Federal lawsuit filed by residents near Florida sinkhole

Posted September 22

— A federal lawsuit was filed late Thursday by three central Florida residents who live near a fertilizer plant where more than 200 million gallons of contaminated wastewater leaked into one of the state's main underground sources of drinking water.

The proposed class-action lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to recover damages, including for the residents' possible losses of private wells, and for water testing, monitoring and treatment.

The lawsuit, filed by the Florida law firm of Morgan and Morgan and by Weitz & Luxenberg of New York, said the phosphate company's "conscious actions and omissions disregarded foreseeable risks to human health and safety and to the environment."

Mosaic, the world's largest supplier of phosphate, said a sinkhole opened up beneath a pile of waste material called a "gypsum stack." The 215-million gallon storage pond sat atop the waste mineral pile. The company said the sinkhole is about 45 feet in diameter.

In response to the lawsuit, Mosaic spokeswoman Callie Neslund said, "We are reviewing the details of this filing and will respond through the judicial process."

Mosaic says it's monitoring groundwater and has found no offsite impacts. It is offering free drinking water testing to the community.

According to a Sept. 21 news release on the company's website, Mosaic has scheduled or collected a total of 106 well water tests through a third-party testing company. They're being prioritized based on their proximity to the property containing the sinkhole.

The sinkhole, discovered by a worker on Aug. 27, is believed to reach down to the Floridan aquifer, the company said in a news release. Aquifers are vast, underground systems of porous rocks that hold water and allow water to move through the holes within the rock.

News of the sinkhole wasn't released to the public until Sept. 11.

Some nearby residents are upset that it took so long for the company and local officials to discuss it. Mosaic acknowledged the information gap on Sept. 20.

"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," Walt Precourt, Senior Vice President of Phosphates for Mosaic, said in a statement during a Polk County Commission meeting. "I regret and apologize for not providing information sooner, and am committed to providing regular updates to the public as we move forward."

The suit, filed on behalf of three residents with private wells, says the plaintiffs "are at risk of drinking or using contaminated water" because of Mosaic's actions.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller says there's no evidence the contaminated water has moved beyond the site and is threatening groundwater supplies.

The Floridan aquifer is a major source of drinking water in the state. One of the highest producing aquifers in the world, it underlies all of Florida and extends into southern Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

According to the University of Florida, it's the principal source of groundwater for much of the state, and the cities of Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Orlando, Daytona Beach, Tampa, and St. Petersburg all rely on it. The aquifer also supplies water to thousands of domestic, industrial and irrigation wells throughout the state.

Mosaic began diverting the pond water into an alternate holding area to reduce the amount of drainage when the problem was first detected. The company said it has been "recovering the water by pumping through onsite production wells."

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