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Black Lamb


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It’s in their bones

May 1st, 2007


godzilla-copy.jpg“How do you explain these things?” I asked my neighbor, a nine-year-old creationist. Dinosaurs, for instance.

“Easy,” he answered. “God created them with all the rest, three thousand years ago.”

Curiosities for our entertainment, doubtless, judging by the enthusiastic way folks poke through the sands of the Peace River, looking for the teeth of alleged gigantic sharks of yore. Up the way, in Mulberry, tourists can admire quite a variety of old bones at the little Phosphate Museum.

“A joke,” Joe commented with a chuckle. “I could take you to a place where there are mastodon tusks as long as this house.”

Joe had retired from a long career in the phosphate industry and knows “Bone Valley” as well as the proverbial back of his hand. He told me all about it over beer at his daughter’s birthday party, a cook-out.

It is unusual to find someone willing to talk about the industry, which keeps a very low profile here in Central Florida — while supplying ten percent of the world’s calcium phosphate, along with a discreet amount of “yellow cake.” Its silent presence reminds one of Big Oil in southern Louisiana: the giant steam shovels — draggers — are about the same size as offshore oil rigs, and self-contained as well; the refining plants in the back country are as mysterious and alien-looking as those devoted to the petroleum industry down in the bayou.

Would there be oranges in Florida without phosphates? After all, we’re talking hydroponics: various forms of citrus grafted on bitter lemon roots, planted in sand, watered by a network of hoses, and fertilized with the calcified remains of critters, scooped up in Bone Valley.

Would there be lakes in central Florida if the bone-diggers hadn’t left all those holes? Or snowbirds, for that matter, who have settled in little houses or RVs around the lakes?

No one would talk to me about any of this until I found Joe.

He began with the geology of the place: a gigantic sea basin, shallow in its day, where all the bones and shells had settled and been compressed into a layer of “product” — not unlike the layer of limestone that furnishes the building blocks of castles and public buildings in northern France and England.

Along with calcium, there is a sprinkling of uranium. Enough so that aggressive chemical processing can add “yellow cake” to the industrial output.

Joe explained that uranium is harvested through its tendency to combine with “rust” — iron. And that all takes place in huge stainless steel vats where the “product” dug out by the draggers is mixed with terrible acids.
It was a while before it became apparent that uranium was concentrating in the corners of these vats — which were then discreetly buried beneath the sands.

Joe had been wearing a little badge to monitor radiation levels — but he was Management. No badges for the workers, who didn’t know anything about it.

“We simply rotated them,” Joe said. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Albright | Link to this Entry


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