MULBERRY, Fla. (AP) — Neighbors of a huge sinkhole sending cascades of contaminated water and fertilizer plant waste into Florida's main drinking-water aquifer are fearful and fuming that it took weeks for them to be notified about the disaster.
Many are still waiting anxiously for results from tests for radiation and toxic chemicals in their well water.
Meanwhile, the Mosaic Co. — one of the world's largest producers of phosphate and potash for fertilizer — acknowledged Wednesday that the contamination is spreading in the groundwater.
So far, more than 200 million gallons of tainted water has drained from a waste heap through a 45-foot-wide hole into the Floridan aquifer, which provides water to millions of people in the state.
The company on Wednesday said it's starting to see non-radioactive contamination such as acidity and sulphates in monitoring wells at the site, which shows the waste has spread into the aquifer.
Florida's Department of Environmental Protection and the company say contaminated water has not migrated enough to threaten private wells in the area, but more than 600 people have accepted Mosaic's offer of free testing since being told of the disaster.
Some residents say they haven't received any results yet, and are angry they weren't told until three weeks after Mosaic reported the groundwater contamination to Florida officials.
A Mosaic employee discovered the sinkhole Aug. 27 and the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was notified the next day, as required by Florida law, according to David Jellerson, the company's senior director for environmental and phosphate projects.
However, nearby homeowners weren't first notified by Mosaic or DEP until Sept. 19, after news of the sinkhole broke the previous week. Only then did Mosaic begin providing them with bottled water.
Meantime, the company is advising people not to drink their well water, said Courtney Tinsley, 38, who lives in the rural community of Lithia, less than 2 miles from the plant.
"I said 'If we can't drink it, we shouldn't be bathing in it too," she said. "I have a 4 and 13 year old, and I do have a concern every time I give them a bath."
DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller did not return multiple messages seeking comment. The agency so far has refused to make water testing data and other public records available to The Associated Press.
Mosaic said some partial results were released to some residents Tuesday, and the labs are working as fast as they can. Mosaic hired a private contractor for its testing. The DEP, meanwhile, is separately taking and testing samples from private wells.
The waste created at Mosaic's New Wales plant contains phosphogypsum, a fertilizer byproduct that contains minute traces of radiation.
Mosaic stacks it in hill-size piles that can be hundreds of feet tall and visible from space. Because it is radioactive, the material can't be reused, but the wastewater involved is stored in ponds atop the piles.
That water has since flowed down into an aquifer that stretches beneath Florida and southern Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Most of the pond water had emptied through the hole by the time the governor toured the site Tuesday, Mosaic also acknowledged that it doesn't really know how deep the hole has grown between the huge radioactive waste pile and the vast aquifer below.
A Mosaic spokeswoman, Jackie Barron, said the company believes it's 300 feet deep, but doesn't yet know for sure.
Mosaic understands neighbors want peace of mind, she said.
"We appreciate how people feel at this point — that's why testing and bottled water continues," Barrron said.
But criticism has been mounting over how long it took to notify the public about potentially radioactive material in the area's water supply.
"The EPA, the DEP, Gov. Rick Scott, where are they?" said Paula Largel, a nursing home worker who lives about 14 miles from the hole, in the nearby town of Mulberry.
"It makes you wonder how long Mosaic would have sat on it if the news crews hadn't broken the story," said Largel.
Tinsley said she first heard about it on the evening news, and called Mosaic for more information. The company didn't call back for days, she said.
Tinsley and other residents have filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages for possible losses of their private wells and the costs of testing, monitoring and treatment.
It's still hurricane season in Florida and heavy rains could wash more contaminated waste down the hole.
"Any storm is going to add water to the mix, and that water will continue to flow though that sinkhole until we plug it," Barron said.
She said the company is adding 5 more monitoring wells so that it can better track any more movement of the contamination.
Dearen reported from Gainesville, Florida.