Wastewater Ponds Often a Local Story Worth Stirring Up

April 21, 2021
Gypsum stacks that hold the waste from phosphate mining, like the one at Piney Point, Fla., in an undated photo above, are just one of many types of the often-neglected waste treatment operations around the United States. Photo: Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Wastewater Ponds Often a Local Story Worth Stirring Up

By Joseph A. Davis

The phosphate mining waste pond in Florida that was threatening to burst made news nationally for more than a week. It could have been ugly. 

If the walls of the elevated Piney Point pond had burst it would have sent a wall of contaminated phosphate mining wastewater down on residents. 

But evacuations and pumping seem to have averted disaster. For now.

Ironically, reporter Craig Pittman and colleagues warned the world about the pond back in 2003 (winning the nonexistent “I Told You So” award that Peter Dykstra has been nagging Society of Environmental Journalists to commission).


Why it matters

Florida is a big phosphorus mining state. So-called “phosphogypsum stacks” (waste ponds) are found elsewhere among the 27 phosphate mines in Florida. 

This fact got less coverage in the Piney Point story, although it did not get by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

But the more general pattern here — neglected and ignored wastewater ponds — also caught the attention of Hiroko Tabuchi at the New York Times, who drew the broad strokes in an April 6 piece: “Florida Crisis Highlights a Nationwide Risk From Toxic Ponds.” 

It’s a real problem, but hard to see. Local reporters who look around their neighborhoods and regions can likely find more examples.

It’s harder to see because, as Tabuchi points out, there are so many kinds of wastewater ponds. Each kind, if regulated at all, may be regulated by a different law or government agency. What you see near you will depend on the industries in your area (more below). 


The backstory

Some engineers and politicians will argue that waste ponds are actually a form of “treatment.” You might want to evaluate these claims skeptically. 

Sometimes ponds actually are treatment, filtering or concentrating pollutants. But often they become a form of long-term storage, without the environmental protections expected from final disposal. 


Wastewater ponds can be left

neglected over long periods of time,

in unstable conditions that invite disaster.


They can be left neglected over long periods of time, in unstable conditions that invite disaster. It becomes a way of procrastinating dealing with the problem.

As climate change brings more extreme weather events, extreme rainfall and flooding will make these ponds more likely to fail — and more dangerous. 

The flimsy oversight or regulation of these ponds usually neither accounts for, nor plans for, flooding.


Story ideas and resources

Here are some of the major kinds of wastewater ponds you can look for in your area:

  • Phosphorus mining: Phosphorus rock is the fifth largest mining industry in the United States, with most of it located in the Southeast. Phosphogypsum stacks concentrate the waste by evaporation. There are over 70 stacks like Piney Point in the country. Federal law and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency leave it up to the states to regulate them.
  • Coal ash ponds: Pits and ponds full of the ash produced by coal-burning electric power plants were once downplayed, ignored and mostly unregulated. Then in 2008, at the dawn of the Obama administration, an impoundment full of coal-ash slurry failed and caused havoc. The years since have been a long story of legislative and regulatory struggle — plus a lot of lawsuits and a few settlements. Many of the unstable “dams” holding back the waste have been shored up, but the big problem is pollution of both surface and groundwater with toxic heavy metals. Start with this map (and check out our 2019 TipSheet). The law and EPA leave most of the regulation to the states.
  • Coal mine tailings dams: When coal is refined near the mining site, the resultant waste, often a slurry, is stored on site to be dewatered. This happens in tailings ponds, which are usually created by dams made out of the actual waste material. The dams are often not well-engineered and are thus often unstable. A flood caused one to fail in 1972, causing the famous Buffalo Creek disaster, which killed 125 in West Virginia. Regulation is poor, with a federal role under the Mine Safety and Health Administration. 
  • Farm animal waste lagoons: Hogs, cattle and other agricultural animals produce body wastes that are often captured in huge ponds meant to contain them, but instead may become sources of water pollution. Thousands of these ponds are found across the country. Odors are often a problem. Spills are common during high rainfall events like hurricanes. Treatment and disposal are poorly regulated, usually by states if at all.
  • Oil sands tailings ponds: These are mostly in Canada, since that is where most North American mining of oil sands happens. Refining the useable bitumen out of oil sands leaves large volumes of slurry waste that need to be dewatered. Treatment and disposal? Not so much. The huge volumes stored in Alberta oil sands tailings ponds often leak, threatening water quality in unspoiled rivers.  
  • Municipal sewage treatment ponds: Ponds are part of most municipal sewage treatment, used for settling sediment and bacterial digestion, as well as storage. U.S. sewage plants are often well-run and well-regulated under the Clean Water Act. But unusual wet-weather events can overwhelm them to the point where they discharge untreated sewage into waterways. Other causes: pipe failure, blockages and power outages. The problem is complicated by combined storm and sanitary sewers. Most U.S. plants have a Clean Water Act discharge permit. 
  • Industrial wastewater ponds: The Clean Water Act also requires most industrial facilities that produce significant amounts of wastewater to treat their own waste and comply with a discharge permit. This involves a wide variety of industries, but some of them can produce highly toxic or pathogenic wastewater. Industrial wastewater treatment typically uses ponds as one stage of treatment. Industries to look at may include mining, food processing, chemical manufacture and paper products.
  • Superfund sites: Old and abandoned hazardous waste sites do not typically involve permanent ponds. But some may involve temporary ponds. Some sites are very large and take decades to clean up. Some are not cleaned up well enough. In the meanwhile, large stormwater events can mobilize the pollutants and move them off site in floodwaters. So if you do have a Superfund site in your area, its performance is worth checking the next time a flood comes your way. 

As diverse as wastewater ponds can be, one starting point (after you have found them) is to look for a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. While these are usually administered by state water quality agencies, they are findable in EPA databases, several of which are listed here. It is important to check the ECHO database, as this shows permit violations.

Keep in mind, though, that some wastewater ponds are constructed with the notion that they will not create discharges. Events (like hurricane deluges) may prove this assumption untrue, but they may not have permits. They are still worth looking into.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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