ST. PETERSBURG – Emergency releases of wastewater from the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant into Bishop Harbor likely will resume soon after Christmas, officials said Thursday.
The discharges will come after officials add an extra layer of water treatment to safeguard sensitive ecosystems, and likely will continue indefinitely while they seek other ways to safely dispose of more than a billion gallons of toxic water.
“This is not a short-term scenario that we need to discuss,” said Gary Uebelhoer, a Tampa consultant hired to guide the work. “We can’t wait for a ‘white knight’ to buy the plant and make the problem go away.”
So, short a hero, a cadre of local leaders took matters into their own hands. The group gathered Thursday in St. Petersburg to hash out how best to first clear some rainy-day space in the plant’s gypsum stack and then drain it entirely.
Group members agreed to create much-needed space by resuming the releases. Adding a second round of lime treatment, they said, will make the wastewater more palatable to marine plants and animals.
A longer-term fix, though, will require a little more thought – and maybe a little more creativity.
“We want to think outside the box,” said George Henderson, a member of the agency’s board and senior research scientist with the Florida Marine Research Institute. “Nothing is too wild to talk about.”
Meeting as the Agency on Bay Management – a consortium of area scientists, regulators and officials – the group did just that. Suggestions from the 90-plus in attendance ran the gamut.
Some said to use the wastewater for irrigation, while others wondered if Manatee County’s treatment system could handle it. A few posited boats could carry the water deep into the Gulf of Mexico, or pipes could move it far offshore.
Rather than close their arms around a single idea, group members opted to form a task force to study ideas, a panel that will work with a similar group being pieced together by Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials.
And they started an early pitch for steady state funding to deal with the mess.
“Let your legislative delegations know that we have to have money for this,” Amy Stein, a Manatee County commissioner, told board members.
They’ll need the money to deal with a mess left behind by Mulberry Corp., the plant’s one-time owner. When company leaders said in early February they had no money to run the plant, they bolted for bankruptcy court and left the toxic pond behind.
That stewpot holds about 1.2 billion gallons of wastewater tainted by phosphorous, nitrogen, acid, minerals, metals and more, Uebelhoer said.
Worse, he noted, each inch of rain sends 12.5 million gallons of water flowing into the stack, either directly as rainfall or as sheets of water that roll off tainted plant property and into contaminated collection ditches.
Factor in the typical rainfall and evaporation rates, among others, and 150 million gallons of wastewater pours into the plant’s pond per year – each year.
“That occurs every year until the site is closed,” Uebelhoer told the group.
Heavy rains in early September, punctuated by Tropical Storm Gabrielle, highlighted that. The skies dropped 19 inches of rain at the plant, filling the stack to near-overflow level.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials responded in mid-October by releasing about 10 million gallons of wastewater, after treating it with lime to ease its acidity.
But they halted the discharges in mid-November amid concerns that pollutants in the wastewater might damage seagrasses, reefs, mangroves and more that ring Bishop Harbor, Tampa Bay and the waters beyond.
With another 50 million gallons to release to clear cap space, about 150 million gallons to empty every year just to keep that space open, and 1.2 billion gallons of toxic water to empty the stack, many bay watchers watch and worry.
“This is a time bomb,” said Rich Paul, manager of the National Audubon Society’s Tampa Bay sanctuaries. “That’s exactly what this is, and any biologist will tell you that.”