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Officials say Suwannee mine overflow no cause for concern

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By Mark Scohier

Nobody seems to know how much water spilled over the rim of a phosphate mine’s cooling pond located near the Upper Suwannee River last week, but officials say there are no environmental concerns at this point.
The overflow began June 27 at a cooling pond owned by the PCS Phosphate mine in Hamilton County when the pond was filled to capacity by rains from Tropical Storm Debby and overflowed onto a nearby road, and into a ditch and Swift Creek, according to Dee Ann Miller, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“As indicated, the phosphoric acid levels were low in the cooling pond and monitoring results indicate pH levels remain normal and indicate no cause for any immediate concern,” Miller wrote in an e-mail Friday. “The only impact identified at the present time is elevated flow to the nearby stream.”
Miller said FDEP had no total for how much water had escaped from the pond into Swift Creek and no figures for how low pH levels were.
“Response efforts began Wednesday morning,” Miller wrote, “the most recent reports from the facility indicate the overflow from the lower section of the cooling pond stopped this (Friday) morning.”
Miller said the mine last week used pumps to help move some of the water and is in the process of coming up with a plan to divert such overflow to other areas in such an event in the future.
“The facility continues to manage the situation,” Miller wrote, “and has been in constant contact with the Department.”
Annette Long, of Save our Suwannee, said she heard reports of the spill coming in Sunday, several days before the time FDEP states water began to overflow.
“My main concern about the report I got from the FDEP Industrial Wastewater folks is that no one from FDEP did any actual testing at the site,” Long said later in an e-mail.  “The only information they have appears to be from the company.  I’m afraid I just don’t trust giant international mega corporations to tell the truth if it will get them in trouble.  I’m sorry I didn’t hear about it when it happened or I would have gone up and collected some samples from Swift Creek during the storm.
“I am strill trying to find out what kind of biological effects the spill might have on the river if any.  If there won’t be any effects, then why do they have to be so careful with the toxic chemicals inside the plant in the first place.”
Dr. Charles Cichra, a fisheries and aquatic sciences professor with the University of Florida, said in an e-mail Friday that the potential effect of such an overflow depends on many factors, such as the pH level of the water entering the stream and the water already in the stream, the volume of water to enter the stream and the amount to which it may have been diluted.
“If the pH is low enough, it can actually damage the gills, skin, fins, eyes, etc. just as acid would affect humans.  If the gills are damaged, the fish may have difficulty obtaining oxygen,” Cichra wrote. “The typical pH of freshwater fish blood is around 7.4.  Fish expend energy to maintain this internal pH, as their biological processes are chemically adapted to function in this pH range.  If the blood pH changes, the processes may have trouble working – such as their immune system which is largely biochemical.”
Cichra stated that different types of Florida fish like different ranges in pH. Fish living in lakes tend to be used to a lower pH, while others living in springs and such like levels as high as 10 to 12 – relatively high levels attributed to the natural chemical effects of limestone.
“Rapid changes in pH can stress and kill fish.  Several years ago, there was a large spill (millions of gallons) from a phosphate mining pond into a portion of the Alafia River system.  Fish, gators, turtles, snails, etc. died by the thousands.  Within a short time, the system recovered.  Mother Nature doesn’t like voids!  There is quite a bit of documentation of this specific spill,” Cichra wrote.
Long, though admitting that much of the water from the mine has probably already made its way out to the Gulf of Mexico, said she has put out a call for people along the Suwannee to keep their eyes open for anything strange.
Dead fish, as well as water samples, can be saved and stored in a freezer, she said.
Long can be contacted by e-mail at long5892@bellsouth.net.