12 09 2010

As you drive into Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, you are greeted by a sign that welcomes you to “The Phosphate Capital of the World.”

Mt. Pleasant is no longer a mining town, but many of the effects remain, and they are not exactly tourist-friendly.  The city tried to become tourist-friendly by replacing the failing hardware, clothing, and appliance stores on the town square with more touristy venues–antique stores, an “old-time” soda fountain, a “phosphate museum,” and the like–but, even before the current bust, that proved a failure as well, and these days the police station is the busiest business left on the square–and how long will a town of just over 4,000 be able to afford that?

But the police department is not the kind of “tourist-unfriendly” I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the city’s chemical hangover from its “golden age” as a phosphate center.

For decades, hundreds, if not thousands, of acres around Mt. Pleasant sat unused and unusable after they had been mined for phosphate in the first half of the 20th century.  The process left behind a jumble of steep, roughly 30′ high, roughly parallel ridges, and it was not until the real estate bubble started inflating in the 80’s (sending land prices in the area zooming from a few hundred to several thousand dollars an acre) that anybody thought it was worth flattening the “mine tailings” as they were known, so they could be turned into suburban homes and strip malls.  Whoopie!

I became educated about the dirty details of phosphate mining when I was  taking care of an orchard in the area,and discovered an enormous, tree-covered, long abandoned earthwork on the steep hill above the orchard–a level area like a road cut into the hill,  with a huge earthen hump on its downhill side.  A neighbor told me this was the site of an early 20th or late 19th century phosphate extraction.   First, workers with axes and two-man saws cut all the trees down and arranged them in a long windrow.  Then  other workers used picks and shovels to dig out the phosphate ore and pile it on top of the windrow. The next step was to burn the windrow.  Heating the soil  by lighting a fire underneath it drove impurities out of the phosphate and into the atmosphere, along with a whole lot of carbon, which nobody was concerned about a hundred years ago.  The laborers who carried out this ecocide were paid sixty-five cents a day.   Sixty-five cents a day in 1900 is the equivalent of $17.10 today.  How’s that for a day’s wages?

Now, about that chemical hangover…first of all,  phosphate is radioactive.  Tobacco gets a good dose of phosphate fertilizer, and the translocation of radioactivity into its leaves may be one of the main reasons why inhaling tobacco smoke causes cancer.  Even  raw ore, the organic fertilizer known as “rock phosphate,” contains potentially dangerous levels of polonium, radon, radium, and radioactive lead.  In addition, the ore contains significant amounts of beryllium, manganese, arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium and vanadium.  These are the “impurities”  that became airborne when the phosphate windrows were burned.  The air quality around Mount Pleasant in the heyday of primitive phosphate mining must have been anything but pleasant.

Phosphate refining methods became more..uh…”refined” as time went by, but that didn’t ease the environmental impact.  All the toxic byproducts had to go somewhere.  Somebody had the bright idea of injecting them so deep in the earth they would never come back up to the surface, but, as fracting is dramatically showing us, that doesn’t work, even in the short run, and the Zeneca Corporation had to cease and desist, pay a 3.5 million-dollar fine, and do extensive cleanup work in Mt. Pleasant due to the mess they made there.

By the way…what percent of Zeneca’s annual income is $3.5M?  As near as I can tell, the company is earning about $3.5B a year, so $3.5 million, while it sounds impressive to you and me, is a mere one-tenth of one percent of the company’s income, the equivalent of $35 to somebody who makes $35,000 a year.  Cheaper than a parking ticket.

In the 1970’s, I worked in commercial, chemically-sprayed orchards.  One of the things I learned as part of my pesticide safety education was, “if you can smell it, it’s having an effect on you.”  In the 80’s, almost every time I traveled through Mt. Pleasant, the sickly-sweet smell of newly-manufactured phosphate insecticides hung in the air.  I was grateful to just be passing through.  Some people had to live there.

The smell of organophosphate insecticides no longer wafts on the Mt. Pleasant breeze. The phosphate deposits around the town are mined out and it’s cheaper to  refine where you mine, and these days that’s the Mideast and China, where the environmental cost of doing business won’t carve that precious tenth of one percent out of anybody’s bottom line.  The good news from this is that Maury County is no longer in the top ten percent of cancer counties in Tennessee, but it’s still in the top twenty-five percent.  The binge is over, but the hangover lingers on.

Several companies contribute to maintaining Mt. Pleasant’s toxic legacy.  One is Cytec, which has taken over a chemical plant formerly run by the Avecia Corporation.  This plant, according to “Scorecard–the pollution information site,” emits levels of   developmental and reproductive toxicants and carcinogens that earn it a rating as one of America’s most polluting factories.  On its website, under the heading “Our First Priority,” the company states

Operating safely to protect our employees from workplace injuries and illnesses, to safeguard the communities adjacent to our facilities, and to preserve the natural environment for all of us and future generations is a fundamental priority at the core of everything that we do at Cytec. We have been – and continue to be – at the forefront of our industry as a leader in setting the pace in procedures, programs, and most importantly, performance relating to safety, health, and the environment.

Good luck, guys!

Two other Mt. Pleasant polluters are Tennessee Aluminum Processors and  Smelter Services Corporation, neither of which rank high as carcinogen sources, but which do rank nationally as  polluters in the “non-cancer causing” pollution category.  Their main business is recycling aluminum, which apparently involves ammonia releases.  Lovely contribution to the pleasantness of Mt. Pleasant, eh?  “Hey, if we’re going to recycle, the dirty work has to happen somewhere, and it might as well be someplace that’s already spoiled.”

Can you say, “source reduction,” boys and girls?

As we leave the ironically named Mt. Pleasant and head north, we soon come to Columbia, where Spontex upholds Maury County’s reputation by being one of the worst polluters in the entire nation, and Occidental Chemical Company is the “good guy,” scoring high on overall releases but low in carcinogens.  Count your blessings, Columbians!

Closer to Nashville, we pass through another region where the ground is high in phosphates, but not quite high enough to merit mining.  This is the area around Spring Hill, Tennessee, which has some of the richest soil in the state that is not adjacent to the Mississippi River.  So, what did we humans do with this valuable food source?   We put a car factory on it, which caused the rapid  replacement of agriculture with myriad suburbs and strip malls, all of which are now grinding to a halt because, surprise, an ailing General Motors  can no longer make money operating the factory, and they’re closing the plant.  It only operated for twenty years, but destroyed an agricultural bastion that had been productive for a  hundred and fifty years and could have kept on being productive for centuries, if left undisturbed.  At  least all the now-unemployed folk in this former farming hot  spot are well situated to grow great gardens, unless they happen to be someplace where the ground was scraped down to the subsoil to make it easier to build McMansions.

This has just been a taste of the many stories of short-term gain and long-term pain here in Tennessee.  There are plenty of others:  the iron mines of Lewis County, the copper desert in the southeast corner of the state, toxic waste disposal in Dixon, the destruction of the state’s hardwood forests, mall sprawl around all our cities, the reintroduction of deer at the expense of agriculture, and mountaintop removal, just to name a few.  I don’t think it’s appropriate to say, “I hope you enjoyed your tour of Mt. Pleasant,” but I do hope you found it informative.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Tender Mercies



10 responses

1 01 2011
Ekaterina Kaverina

I am really intrigued by your article that i found while searching for information on the following: “Phosphate, Tennessee Brown (0-3-0, 27% P2O5) Neither a colloidal nor a rock phosphate, but the consistency of rich soil. Comes from the washing piles left behind when high-grade ore was extracted to produce superphosphate in the early 20th century. When tested in several midwestern states’ labs, concentrations of available phosphate were regularly over 6%. Lowest concentration of heavy metals of any phosphate source. Recommended by Phil Callahan and Mark Fulford. Apply at 300-500#/acre at any time of the year. ” – FEDCO growers’ catalog. I am extremely interested in hearing your opinion on that.

2 01 2011

“Lowest concentration of heavy metals ” is not the same as “no heavy metals.” Inasmuch as the processing and consequent pollution took place decades ago, the biggest ecological impact would be from transport–but by all means, wear a dust mask while applying it and change clothes and wash yourself well afterwards! We had several tons of rock phosphate in our barn at one point, and were dismayed to find that it set off a friend’s radiation detector, but the radiation is mostly the kind that you have to ingest before it can harm you.

2 01 2011
2 01 2011

Thank you very much. I was not really planning to buy it anyway. I live in East TN and became interested in it because it is more or less next dorr.

25 10 2013
daniel doubleday

mt.pleasant is polluted because the citizens of the city don’t have the courage to fight the polluters.everone in that town had a chance to stop the polluntion and the corruption,but choose not to vote to make a positive change

25 10 2013

I’m only posting this in order to reply to it, not because i “approve” of it. While there is truth in what you say, it’s a gross oversimplification of a highly complex, long-standing situation. The citizens of Mt. P are just like the rest of us–dependent for their financial survival on a toxic system that is wealthy and selfish and out of their control. Phosophate, and the pollution it creates, made the town. Most people are, it is sadly true, too short-sighted to vote against their short-term interests, and not just in Mt. Pleasant.

11 12 2013

Great post. I grew up in Mt. Pleasant. It is known as “Mt Misery” to many of the locals that worked in the industry. A great number of these people depended on the very thing that was making them sick. The last time I was there it seemed a little odd, mainly because the smell was gone! When we moved there in the 70’s, I remember once complaining about the smell, “That is money you smell, boy” was the answer that I got.

20 12 2013

I happened across aerial (sp?) photos of the many chemical plants active in Mt. P in the late 40’s…all featyred huge plumes of smoke/dust, many had homes immediately adjacent. “Ooh, that smell/Can’t you smell that smell?/The smell of death surrounds you”?–Lynnrd Skynnrd

11 03 2018

Do you think it’s possible Monsanto dumped chemicals in old phosphate pits in Brentwood, TN that supplied Columbia? Could Kennon Genesco archived Superfund be a coverup?

22 03 2018

I have no idea what the answer to your question might be. Sounds lik you know a lot more about it than I do!

I didn’t even know there was a superfund site in Williamson County, but the “phosphate belt” does stretch at least as far north as Spring Hill. The Farm used to rent land for field crops around Spring Hill, and part of th advantage of growing things there was that you didn’t need to apply any phosphate fertilizers because the ground was naturally rich in the nutrient.

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