Progress Village: A Forgotten Community & The Need for Environmental Justice

November 8, 2021
The photo above is a phosphogypsum stack located near Progress Village in Riverview FL. Over ⅓ of the nation’s phosphogypsum stacks are located within Florida. Many Floridians will neither recognize nor have heard of them, and they are often confused with large landfills by unfamiliar drivers passing by. But for the environment and communities around which they are built they represent an urgent and ever present threat.
Phosphogypsum is a radioactive byproduct of fertilizer production. It is acidic and contains both heavy metals and nutrients harmful to the environment. The EPA has deemed that there is currently no safe or appropriate use for phosphogypsum and so it has been maintained in massive stacks as shown above. These stacks are prone to disastrous spills from dike breaches as well as lining ruptures which slowly create sinkholes beneath the stack. There have been at least 9 major breaches in the last 30 years, and these breaches are often an intentional emergency discharge into the ocean that prevents a sudden overflow of the stack due to rainfall.
When phosphogypsum is discharged into the environment the effects are devastating. The acidity of the water kills millions of fish and destroys natural seagrass beds which then destabilizes local ecosystems. Nutrients from the water cause harmful red algae blooms for months following the leak.

Shown below is the difference between red tide levels in July 2020 compared to July 2021 after the tragic phosphogypsum discharge from Piney Point into Tampa Bay.

While the environmental threat is clear and devastating, the human health threat that phosphogypsum stacks pose is more uncertain. A study of phosphate miners demonstrated that working with the radioactive material led to an increased incidence of lung cancer and leukemia. Although this provides some insight into the potential dangers of working with radioactive phosphate, there is an utter lack of studies on health impacts to communities around which phosphogypsum stacks are built.

Unfortunately, these communities tend to be communities of color, and a jarring example of a disaffected community that had little voice in the phosphogypsum stack built near it is the story of Progress Village.
Progress Village is a small Black community founded in 1960 and is Florida’s first affordable housing suburb. Local officials in Tampa had mischaracterized their Black communities as slums that hindered tourism for decades, and they used local projects such as highway construction as pretext to destroy them. One Black minister, Reverend W. S. Banfield, cared deeply about his parishioners and assembled a team of 18 businessmen, half of them Black, to create “a joint racial effort to ameliorate the impact of the dislocations.” The result of this effort was Progress Village. and because of what it represented Progress Village had much opposition from surrounding white areas (some Klan-controlled) both during and after its construction. Distrust of Tampa officials was understandably high among residents, and Ray Johnson, a community leader, recalls his effort to found a Progress Village civic council because residents did not trust an official from downtown Tampa to advocate for their needs. He recalls that at the civic center’s founding there were no bus stops, no post office, and no street lights. Through support and collaboration among Progress Village’s residents, the tight-knit community eventually thrived.
Progress Village’s battle with the phosphate industry began in the 70’s when an Ammonia pipeline was built beneath the suburb that linked the Riverview phosphogypsum plant to other facilities in central Florida. Despite fierce opposition from residents with a petition garnering 1,200 signatures, the pipeline was built without their consent. Residents feared that a pipeline break could emit toxic clouds that would kill them. The county approved its construction anyway because it was seen as an alternative to trucking accidents that could release the toxic fumes elsewhere and cause evacuations as happened that same year. The pipeline was built despite the pleas of the community and it represented a victory for Gardinier Inc. that would later embolden the company to construct a second phosphogypsum stack near progress village.
The second stack was planned in secrecy. Progress Village did not become aware of the second stack until phase one of its construction was completed. The approved phase one allowed a, “modification and expansion of the existing chemical plant”(HBOCC 1980). Gardinier used the approval of phase one to increase phosphogypsum production to a level which could not be contained by the existing stack, and would add political pressure for approval of phase two: “creation of a new gypsum disposal area”. One of the residents expressed: “We became involved in that, this stack moving this side of US 41, so close to the community, so close to the school, would cause irreparable damage, health damage to our, the health of our residents, the students at the school, and even the value of our properties.”
Protests lasted over a year and a half before the county commision was ready to vote in 1984. Knowing that the stack would be approved anyway, Progress Village negotiated for a few minor concessions including the establishment of a $25,000/year scholarship fund, preferential hiring of PV residents, and landscaping.
These minor concessions provided little for the community to offset the potential health damage done by the new stack and represent a broader trend of token gestures made towards local communities on the part of phosphate companies to strengthen their image of helping the communities they operate in.
(The new gypsum stack labeled with a red pin next to Progress Village in cyan. The existing stack is shown with the orange pin.)
With the new phosphogypsum stack so close to the community, it is only a matter of time before disaster. In 2004, Hurricane Frances slammed the Riverview stack creating a massive dike breach that unleashed 65 million gallons of water. The wastewater made its way to Archie Creek and Hillsborough Bay killing everything in its path. Luckily, Progress Village itself was not heavily polluted by the stack nor was it ravaged severely by the hurricane.
Progress Village’s location near the coast of Tampa Bay makes it vulnerable to such disasters. Hurricanes, flooding, and overflowing will only continue to increase as Florida faces accelerating climate change.
This is the story of Progress Village. It is important to recognize that every gypsum stack built in this country creates one, and through the lens of environmental justice, we must be cognizant of the stories we are writing.
For more information on phosphogypsum stacks in Florida click here. Additional stories from Progress Village residents about what growing up in Progress Village was like can be found here.