Minding Mosaic: Trust Is A Precious Commodity

The summer of 2016 was a scary time for Florida. If you only knew what you read in the headlines or saw on the newscasts, you’d think everyone in Florida this summer was scared or mad over circumstances beyond their control.

To name just a few of the issues that have potential ramifications for Florida agriculture in the months ahead and 2017 legislative session:
Zika’s spread and protests over aerial pesticide applications in South Florida;
• Arguments over how to improve water quality and stop harmful algal blooms off Florida’s coasts;
• Millions of gallons of partially treated sewage being dumped in Tampa Bay; and …
• Questions about the lack of timely public notification after a sinkhole opened up on phosphate property in Central Florida and millions of gallons of process water leaked into the Floridan aquifer.

Each of these issues is complicated. There are no easy, quick, or cheap solutions. But after spending a recent weekend with CropLife America focusing on how to better engage local communities on agchem issues, particularly pesticide use, I came away with a greater appreciation of how important mutual respect and trust is to any discussion or work on these issues.

Mulling Mosaic

As I write this, the outrage stemming over the timely lack of public communication about the sinkhole at Mosaic’s New Wales facility is dominating the news.

I have a special interest in the Mosaic issue. This issue hit close to home (I live in Polk County, although not near the sinkhole) and it hits at the heart of my work world — the fertilizer industry.

Mosaic did so many things RIGHT — identifying the leak, notifying the EPA, DEP, and local county government and working with these agencies on the mitigation efforts such as drawing down the pond levels, diverting water, and engineering pumps to recapture the water so it can be handled onsite. At the time I write this, no off-site impacts had been identified and extensive monitoring and well testing was ongoing.

What went wrong — very wrong — was the failure of all involved to publicly report what was going on in a timely manner.

Mosaic and the agencies aware of the sinkhole and contamination of the aquifer have been harshly — and justly — criticized for waiting nearly three weeks before neighbors were made aware of the incident in September. Immediately, people — ranging from the mine’s neighbors to Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — voiced their outrage at the lack of timely information provided. Just a few days after the story broke, a class action lawsuit was filed. And, as this column deadline loomed, Gov. Rick Scott announced an emergency order requiring companies, municipalities, and government agencies to share news of pollution events with the media and the public within 24 hours; many details about what was to be covered by the order were unknown as of this posting. The point being made was the need to be forthcoming when there’s a problem.

I wish I knew why the public notification was so badly handled by all involved. What I do know is Mosaic leaders have publicly apologized to the community. The company has promised to take care of their neighbors, providing bottled water, third-party well tests, and the company is operating a recovery well to prevent offsite impacts.

In his public apology before the Polk County Board of County Commissioners, Walt Precourt, Mosaic’s Senior Vice President of Phosphate Operations, said the company is committed to providing their neighbors with peace of mind.

Have Faith

I have personally observed Mosaic’s deep and sincere interest in serving the communities where it has operations — it is one of the most active companies I know in terms of its charitable contributions and support for local schools, organizations, and events. Mosaic cares about its employees, its neighboring communities, and its reputation.

I don’t know when the furor over this will die down or how much damage has been done. What I do know, is we as an industry need to figure out ways to be engaged, to keep the discussions productive, and the solutions science-based.

Trust is hard to win, easy to lose, and difficult to rebuild. But, our industry’s license to operate depends on earning and maintaining the public’s trust.

That trust has been shaken. It’s going to take all of us working together to restore it.

For updates on this issue, visit Mosaicco.com/florida/new_wales_water_loss_incident.htm.

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