In the Shadow of Phosphate: A Data Story on Life Near Industry in Florida

By Katie Delk

Florida is home to a majority of the nation’s phosphate mining for fertilizer production. Who lives near these sites? Are there patterns of racial or economic disparity? We set out to answer these questions with U.S. Census Bureau data. 

Past analyses have found that communities of color and lower-income areas are often disproportionately affected by environmental hazards like pollution. This issue is complex and measurable in racial patterns, income level, education access and health status near industry. 

News coverage has highlighted Black communities in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley that fight back against disproportionate impact of pollution from industry in their neighborhoods, but has only alluded to Florida counties with high poverty rates such as DeSoto fighting back against mines.

Phosphate industry sites include mines, plants, port facilities and phosphogypsum stacks, or gypstacks, which are mountains of phosphate mining waste. This story analyzes gypsum stacks as the most reliable data for the industry’s footprint past and present. The gypstacks hold millions of gallons of toxic water, posing risks to Florida’s water and nearby communities.

This series of data visualizations shows poverty rates, median income and demographics of census tracts and ZIP codes surrounding Florida gypsum stacks. Results show that communities near gypstacks tend to have higher non-white populations than the state average, and that most have higher poverty rates. Together, these analyses serve to identify and describe the communities most impacted by the phosphate industry.

The Sunshine State lies atop phosphate rock, deposited by primeval seas. This phosphate backbone is located largely in the central part of the state in Polk, Hardee, Manatee and Hillsborough counties, which together make up the Bone Valley. This map shows where each of 25 gypsum stacks are located relative to Census tract outlines. Census tract 148.02, encompassing the city of Mulberry, has six gypstacks, the most in Florida.

Lance Kautz, a regulator with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Mining and Mitigation Program, said phosphate mines, fertilizer plants and gypsum stacks require monitoring of all water going in and out for both dam safety and water-quality.

“Human health is directly tied to environmental health,” Kautz said. “Having good quality groundwater and good quality surface water has a net benefit to the human health of the surrounding area.”

Mosaic, which operates most of North America’s phosphate production, said it inspects gypsum stacks daily and monitors groundwater.

Lower-income communities in Central Florida bear the brunt of health and safety threats from mining industry activities, which include a history of spills from gypsum stacks. In this second map, the color scale shows the poverty percent relative to the state average. Light green represents less poverty than the state average and dark green represents more poverty than the state average, which is 9.36%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Analysis of gypstack site data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and poverty data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that a majority of gypstacks are located in areas with greater than the state average poverty level – 88% of Florida ZIP codes that have at least one gypstack within their boundaries also have higher than average poverty rates. 

These bar charts show the top five ZIP codes that host the most gypstacks relative to the state average poverty rate, 9.36%, and average racial make-up. 

Bradley Junction and Mulberry, ZIP codes 33830 and 33860, have more gypstacks than any other location in Florida and also have higher poverty rates than the state average.

Finally, a look at how ZIP codes with the highest number of gypstacks relate to median incomes suggests that the most sites are located in areas with lower median incomes.


The burden of the phosphate industry tends to be greater in areas of Florida with lower income and a higher non-white population percentage. Among the three census tracts with the most gypstacks, the top one has higher poverty rates than the state average, but the second two do not. All are in Polk County in Central Florida. Due to the highly disproportionate number of phosphorus sites in this county, the heavy burden of phosphorus mining for the whole country falls in this central part of the state regardless of other demographic descriptions. The data suggest many more dynamics to explore through continued reporting as to the reasons behind the divide in poverty and race demographics and how phosphorus has helped shape Florida.

Full methodology

A full explanation of the data methodology behind these analyses is available here.

This story is part of The Price of Plenty, a special project investigating fertilizer from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and the University of Missouri School of Journalism, supported by the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.

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