PINEY POINT – The fate of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater at the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant may come into focus Thursday, when area leaders gather for talks in St. Petersburg.
Officials and activists will try to hammer out a plan for disposing of the highly acidic water – millions of gallons of which already have poured into Tampa Bay – without crippling marine life or nearby ecosystems.
“The first thing is, everybody’s got to kind of accept that we have a problem,” said Louis Timchak Jr., the court-appointed attorney overseeing safety concerns at the plant. “It’s not going to go away, and we’re not going to solve it with just rhetoric.”
But they will start with rhetoric. Thursday, leaders from Manatee County, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, Tampa Bay estuary watchers and others will try to find a way to safely clear the plant’s gypsum stack.
At an Agency on Bay Management-hosted public meeting, the sides will debate plans to continue the discharges, add another layer of treatment or pipe treated water into an irrigation system rather than to the bay, among others.
Whatever course they choose, they have their work cut out. The stack contains as much as a billion gallons of water used to process phosphate ore into fertilizer products.
Mulberry Corp. officials last year washed their hands of the wastewater, which contains acid, nitrogen, phosphorous and heavy metals. They filed for bankruptcy, walking away from the Piney Point plant and a sister site.
But the walk didn’t end worries.
Many leaders feared a repeat of a 1997 spill that sent 50 million gallons of wastewater from the company’s central Florida site pouring into the Alafia River. That rupture killed tens of thousand of fish and fouled Tampa Bay for months.
When Tropical Storm Gabrielle’s heavy rains filled the Piney Point stack to the point of a similar spill, state officials ordered an emergency release of up to 68 million gallons of wastewater.
With no nearby plants capable of processing the waste, officials crafted another plan. It called for sucking the water from the stack, treating and diluting it to lessen the environmental worries, then spitting the product into Bishop Harbor.
But bay watchers balked, concerned the plans didn’t call for enough water treatment to protect the mangroves, seagrasses, shrimps, crabs, cranes and more into, and around which, the wastewater would flow.
So, after siphoning about 10 million gallons of wastewater from the stack from late October to mid-November, officials closed the taps – and opened a debate thatspills over to Thursday’s meeting and maybe beyond.
“The bottom line is, everybody wants to get to the same point, which is to get to a point where we don’t have to do this again,” said Suzanne Cooper, director of the Agency on Bay Management.
“Hopefully, if we don’t come up with a solution at the meeting, we’ll have at least started the wheels spinning.”