by Dell deChant
It is amusing in a grim Greek-tragic sort of way hearing Florida’s Governor and other public officials boast about ending the environmental threat of the Piney Point gypsum stack – once and for all. Those were the exact words of Noah Valenstein, Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, on April 13, 2021. Valenstein’s bold claim occurred at the same press conference where Governor Ron DeSantis pledged $15.4 million in response to the catastrophe, affirming: “We want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story.” Not to be outdone, Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson wants to spend $200 million on the “complete cleanup and closure” of the site; and further observing, “We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in 5, 10, or 20 years.” No we don’t, but remember, the Piney Point gypsum stack is not the only one in Florida – each one, a toxic time bomb.
Macho bluster and monetized grandstanding in the wake of catastrophe is not uncommon – but it is no less amusing in a tragic sense. The response to the Piney Point gypsum stack disaster may well be successful. We all certainly hope so, especially when the threat is so significant and the financial cost so stunning. Once and for all – but only after at least 215 million gallons of wastewater has been diverted into Tampa Bay and over $200 million tax-payer dollars potentially diverted from resiliency initiatives and proactive ecological incentives. Once and for all for Piney Point, but not for all the other gypsum stacks in Florida.
Once and for all declarations occur after hurricanes and floods, wildfires and tornados, oil spills and gypsum stack collapses. Courageous officials step up to podiums, speak firmly about responding to tragedies, pledge money, declare states of emergency, tour disaster sites, get photo ops and video clips. We’ll fix this mess with rhetoric and money – massive amounts of both. Meanwhile, disaster scenes play in B-roll footage of the catastrophes and in our cultural consciousness – challenging official declarations and shaping expectations of the future.
We’ll fix this mess with rhetoric and money, but future messes will come, and they will come more often and to more and more of us. The problem of Piney Point may well be resolved sometime in the future, but the cause of the problem shows no sign of being confronted, much less eliminated. There are more Piney Points waiting for us in the future. Florida has 25 gypsum stacks, and Polk County alone has over a dozen. The stacks themselves are byproducts of phosphate mining, an $85 billion industry, and the source for a mineral found in nearly all commercial fertilizers.
That’s right, the fertilizer used on lawns and in most home gardens contributes to the decimation of ecosystems through phosphate mining and the toxic gypsum tailings that have no worthwhile use at all.
After the damage has been done and the money spent, Piney Point may well be closed, but there really is no once and for all for this story. Toxins and nutrients from the site are already in Tampa Bay with consequences still to be measured for durations yet to be known. There may be die offs of marine life, red tides, algae blooms, carcasses on beaches. There may be economic impacts on fish and shrimp harvesting, tourism, and gulf-side businesses. Remember the Deep Water Horizon, the Exxon Valdez, the Delian Apollon, the gypsum stack collapse in Mulberry, the Texas freeze this past winter, the California wild fires last year, Hurricane Katrina? Add Piney Point to this sampling of Anthropocene catastrophes. There is no once and for all for any of these. There are only more once agains.
And this is the source of the tragic amusement. The once and for all claim is amusing for its hubris, boasting of the power to solve a problem after the fact of a disaster – a disaster that could have been averted because the problem had long been known. You didn’t see this coming, when it was obvious to everyone, and now you are going to fix it? The tragic humor is also rooted in the recurring nature of these scenes. Hasn’t this happened before? Isn’t this the same thing you said before? The gypsum stacks are still standing, the rigs are still pumping oil, the tankers are still plowing through the seas, we are still heating the planet, and still using phosphate from all those Florida mines to fertilize our lawns, flowers, and tomatoes.
Dell deChant is Associate Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, Chair of the Environmental Committee of the City of New Port Richey, and member of the board of directors of Ecology Florida.
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