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What is phosphate and why does so much of it come from Florida?

Phosphate has been dominating the news in Florida for several days since the breach at a wastewater reservoir in Manatee County forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes.

Phosphate is a key ingredient in fertilizer and is also found in animal feed supplements, food preservatives and industrial products.

Florida produces the most of any state – half of all production in the U.S. There isn’t much here in Southwest Florida, but have you heard of “Bone Valley”? It’s a stretch of land running through Hardee, Hillsborough, Polk and Manatee counties.

Phosphorous has to be mined and processed, and the leftover wastewater goes into a reservoir, like the one at Piney Point, which saw the breach.

Dr. Tom Missimer, Ph.D., PG, is director of the Emergent Technologies Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University. One look at his office and you just know he’s well-read on hydrology and geology.

“I started when I was at the U.S. Geological Survey in the groundwater aspects of it in 1973, and I’ve done a lot of work for the FIPR, which is the state phosphate research institute.”

So, what in the world, literally, is phosphate?

“Phosphate, the compound that we have in fertilizer, is PO4 – it’s one part phosphorous and four parts oxygen.”

While some people search for seashells in Florida, others look for phosphate.

“Florida’s one of the few places in the U.S. where there’s abundant supply of particularly the high-grade pebble phosphorous.”

Missimer said the compound is critical for the food we eat.

“If we took all of the fertilizer away, our agricultural production would probably go down by about 80%.”

He said while phosphate mining is mainly done in Central Florida, there are phosphate deposits here, but they’re very low grade and not worth mining.

Reporter:Stephanie Byrne
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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