Florida Phosphate and the Environment: Practices, Problems and Emerging Technologies

McFarlin, Richard F.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 8
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1992
INTRODUCTION Phosphate, one of the three major elements essential for all living plants and animals, has been mined in Florida for over a hundred years. Comprising roughly 80% of the U.S. total and 25% of the world's supply, the bulk of the 35 to 40 million annual ton output is converted to chemical fertilizers. With the exception of one mine in north Florida near the Georgia state line, today's mining activities are centered in the middle of the peninsula just east/southeast of Tampa in Polk, Hillsborough and Hardee counties. These "bone valley" deposits extend into Manatee and DeSoto counties, but there is little active mining there as yet. Because strip mining is, perhaps, the ultimate environmental insult and because Florida has a proactive environmental community, it is not surprising that the mining of phosphate rock has become increasingly controversial. This paper describes how phosphate rock is currently mined, the environmental problems presented by mining and processing the rock, and some mitigating technologies being employed to answer such problems. THE PHOSPHATE DEPOSIT AND ITS EXTRACTION Florida's phosphate deposits containing the calcium phosphate mineral, carbonate-fluorapatite, are between ten and fifteen million years old. The typical "bone valley" matrix is 15 feet thick and lies under 20 to 30 feet of overburden.(Fig. 1) Both the sandy overburden and matrix are unconsolidated and can be removed with standard 45 to 65 cubic yard, walking electric draglines. After removing the overburden, which is windrowed nearby, the dragline operator casts the matrix into a "slurry" pit where it is broken up by high pressure water monitors. Pit pumps (with boosters where necessary) transport the matrix slurry through 16 to 20 inch pipelines to a washer where the three components of the matrix (sand, clay and apatite) are separated. The phosphates contained in central Florida matrix are approximately half pebble/half flotation feed, through the pebble ratio decreases as the industry mines southward. Again, the matrix is roughly equally divided among sand, clays and apatite. The phosphatic clays, 75% of which are less than one micron in size, leave the washer as a 3 to 5% colloidal suspension. The impoundment of these waste clays is one of the environmental challenges to be discussed later. The sand (silica) is separated from the similarly sized phosphate particles by a double float process (fatty acid followed by a reverse mine or cleaner float), and the sand tailings are then pumped to disposal or reclamation sites. The apatite flotation product is combined with the screened phosphate pebbles and stacked to dewater before shipping.
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