PKG Social Impact Internships: Randy McLaughlin (’24)
My Name is Randy McLaughlin, and I am a rising Sophomore from Orlando, Florida, majoring in course 20. This summer I worked for the Florida Institute for Health Innovation as an Environmental Health Equity Research Analyst, where I worked compiling research to educate the public on ever-growing environmental threats and their unequal effect on certain communities.
The central social issue of my internship was climate change. Dedicated to the health of Florida’s residents, the Florida Institute for Health Innovation spends countless hours spreading awareness of environmental developments that unequally threaten Florida, such as sea level rise, heat, flooding, water and air quality, and many others. I was able to work on several projects designed to engage the public to act to protect their communities through advocacy and direct action.
A project that particularly stood out to me was our work putting together materials to expose the unfair practices and policies surrounding phosphate mining waste in Florida. This waste, called phosphogypsum, is stored in large stacks and covered in hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater. A particular plant Near Tampa Bay, Florida, called Piney Point recently had another major leak, spilling over 200 million gallons of water into the Bay. I worked with another intern to research the effects of such spills and the policies in place that allowed this environmental hazard to plague the inhabitants of Manatee County. We found a deep history of social injustice, allowing phosphate mining companies to store their hazardous waste without being liable to damages caused to the public and to the environment.
To address Piney Point and the other 23 stacks in Florida, we started work to put together a round table of environmental experts, government officials, and journalists to start a movement to make actual changes in Florida policies regarding phosphogypsum stacks. We put together a story map that thoroughly explains the history of Piney Point and why it is a problem, accessible to the general public. We helped shine a light on a conflict between the largely Black Progress Village and the phosphogypsum stacks built near their home. The voices of those who must deal with the consequences of poorly kept phosphogypsum stacks have been continually silenced, but my work with the Florida Institute for Health innovation kept their voices heard and added more forces to their fight for an equal opportunity for a healthy community.
This project taught me a lot about the struggles of getting private corporations to take responsibility for their environmentally irresponsible practices. HRK Holdings, who owns Piney Point, has constantly ignored warnings of potential floods or leaks and has failed to change their storage practices after numerous hazardous leaks. Due to the company’s status as a limited liability corporation and Florida’s laws, there are no legal incentives for them to make changes to their storage practices, and they opt for the cheaper option of allowing the environmental hazard to proliferate. Learning about all the roadblocks in place stopping a safer environment for Florida residents has been disheartening. Every stack like Piney Point has its own story, and that barely touches on the underlying issues. Hurricanes are strengthening and causing more damage to these stacks than before, and very little is being done to help Floridians.
The best we can do is to continue to fight. The fight for Piney Point will continue, and my work with the Florida Institute for Health Innovation has produced several other projects that utilize the abilities of the general public to fight the effects of climate change in their communities, such as protecting ourselves from stronger floods, more intense heat waves, and other increasing environmental threats. It has been great to see hope in a field that is hit with so much adversity and I have loved my time working with the Florida Institute for Health Innovation!
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