The defunct Piney Point fertilizer plant is a disaster in the making.
The 700 million gallons of acidic water in the gypsum storage stack threatens to break through the walls and spill into Tampa Bay. Even if the square mound’s walls of fine, white, packed gypsum hold, rains threaten to push the water up and over the walls.
An official at the state Department of Environmental Protection, which took over the facility after its owners abandoned the bankrupt plant in 2001, admits Piney Point’s stores of acidic water are one of the largest environmental risks in Florida’s history.
If the agency fails in its scramble to empty the gypsum stack during Florida’s rainy season, it’s possible that a catastrophic spill into Tampa Bay could kill millions of fish and decimate sea grass beds for dozens of square miles.
Complete recovery of the bay’s ecosystem would take decades.
But critics say the state’s plan to rid the facility of much of the toxic water by Nov. 30 is “based on everything going just right” and is “too little, too late.”
The DEP’s plan to avoid an ecological disaster of historic proportions is ambitious: Start Saturday, and by Nov. 30 remove about 400 million gallons of water, treated to remove most pollutants. The water will be hauled in 7.5 million-gallon loads to the Gulf of Mexico, where the DEP plans to dump it starting at 40 miles out.
At the same time, officials will truck water from the plant to other facilities, such as phosphate plants, which will use it in fertilizer production, or reclaimed water systems, such as on golf courses, that will reuse it.
The DEP is confident its $3.7 million plan will work even though Mother Nature has thwarted this year’s efforts to drain the site, with rain refilling the stack even as the DEP tries to empty it.
The DEP has calculated that every inch of rain that falls over Piney Point while the barge lumbers seaward will add more than 12 million gallons to the stack. Typical summer rains mean the barge may return to find the stack fuller than when it left.
DEP officials admit that back-to-back tropical storms or a single slow-moving hurricane would present “some real challenges.” And cracks in the gypsum walls of the retaining ponds are appearing with regularity.
“There is the potential for a catastrophic failure at Piney Point,” said Glenn Compton, head of ManaSota-88, a watchdog over the phosphate industry and other environmental concerns.
“There is, obviously, a real concern the DEP is taking steps too little, too late,” he said. “If we do get a heavy rainy season, it could have devastating effects.”
A second catastrophe?
The DEP’s untried plan to dump the treated waste water into the Gulf — then hope for the best — is controversial.
Nobody knows what will happen when the Gulf is loaded with nutrients.
If the dumping is allowed, fishermen and others who rely on that swath of the Gulf for their livelihood worry the catastrophe would be shifted there.
Mitchell Roffer is a doctor of biology and oceanography from Miami appointed by a coalition of fishermen and spongers to examine the state’s dumping plan.
“While one dumping scenario suggests that there will be no algal blooms or no toxic effects on fauna and flora in the dumping area,” Roffer wrote to a DEP contractor hired to oversee the Piney Point emergency, “the worst case scenario is that harmful algal blooms will form resulting in fish kills … and a public health risk on the beach communities.”
Roffer raised questions regarding heavy rains during the summer and early fall in a report to Louis J. Timchak Jr., the DEP’s receiver for the plant.
“What are the plans if the water levels of the untreated waste-water increase over time, rather than decrease?” he wrote.
“The DEP’s plan is based on everything going just right,” Roffer said later in a telephone interview. “If (a) tropical storm … drops 20 inches of rain, what do they do then?”
Roffer is also critical of the DEP for not using at least two barges to move the treated waste water from Piney Point; one could be dumping at sea while the other is filling up at Port Manatee.
DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said the agency decided to go with one barge because it has such a large capacity, and the water can be treated at Piney Point only fast enough to fill a barge every few days.
But the dumping may be further delayed if spongers and fishermen, who work out of Tarpon Springs, have their way.
In late May, commercial sponge diver Henry Ross filed a petition with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set aside or modify the dumping permit, and hold an informal public hearing. The EPA’s decision is expected later this month.
And it’s not just spongers, fishermen and environmental groups who are concerned about the plan.
Sarasota resident Kathy Jackson is watching the situation with trepidation. She’s worried that dumping the treated waste water will cause a massive red tide bloom.
“They have no idea how this is going to react to the living organisms out there in the Gulf,” she said. “We shouldn’t be dumping if we don’t know, because once it’s done, it’s done.”
Jackson realizes that doing nothing could result in a catastrophic spill, but she wonders, if the DEP is successful, whether an equally harmful ecological disaster will occur.
“It could ruin beach life in Florida,” she said. “To me, it’s just shortsighted.”
Critics have said the DEP did not properly prepare for the rainy season, usually summer through fall. Even after repeated warnings that heavy rains could cause a devastating spill, critics say the agency dragged its heels while trying to get the plant’s last owner, Mulberry Corp., or the phosphate industry to handle and pay for the problem.
DEP Deputy Secretary Allan Bedwell chafes at the criticism.
“That is a gross mischaracterization of the hard work, the rapid work, and the significant challenges we’ve faced after being given 48 hours notice that we were being handed an abandoned phosogypsum stack that contained 4 billion gallons of acidic water,” he said.
“This has never been done before,” he said. “Those who criticize were not there.”
Bedwell said he’s confident his agency can empty the stack during the rainy season even if a minor hurricane dumps more than a dozen inches of rain on Piney Point.
“Everything we’ve done at the site … minimizes the risk of catastrophic failure. Does it zero it out? No,” he said. “If we get two hurricanes or a string of tropical storms then we are going to see some real challenges at the site.”
The Mulberry Corp. discontinued production at its plants in Mulberry and at Piney Point in 1999, citing a decline in the demand for phosphate. The company went bankrupt in 2001, with many of its top executives distancing themselves from the problem and moving on to similar jobs in other states.
The DEP has released about a million gallons of the treated water into Tampa Bay’s Bishop Harbor nearly every day since December.
Rob Brown, a Manatee County environmental administrator, has been monitoring the discharge and said chlorophyll levels are elevated in the harbor, but it has not caused any major problems.
Brown also will monitor the ocean dumping because the treated waste water is rich in nitrogen, a nutrient rarely found in deep waters.
“The No. 1 issue is to close the plant so we don’t have to continue to operate this thing,” Brown said. “We tried it (discharging into the harbor) for the first year, but the only thing we did was make enough room for the new year’s storm event when it filled up again.”
There are 1.2 billion gallons of waste water now at Piney Point. About 500 million gallons of that is soaked into the gypsum stack’s walls. That water will have to be treated over the decades as it leaches out.
The 700 million gallons of untreated waste water in the pools in and around the gypsum stack is slightly radioactive and contains nitrogen, ammonia, phosphates, fluorides and heavy metals.
Bedwell said his agency expects to rid the plant of at least 250 million gallons by barge and 200 million gallons by trucking it elsewhere. He estimated that 220 million gallons more will evaporate, even though the air is saturated during much of Florida’s rainy season.
Average summer and fall rains in Manatee County would return 450 million gallons to the stack, leaving a net loss of 220 million after the dumping, if all of the evaporation occurs.
Even with the DEP’s scenario, a tropical system dropping 18 inches of rain would leave the stack as full on Nov. 30 as it is now.
The DEP says it has removed 334 gallons of water from the site since December through discharge into Bishop Harbor, reverse osmosis and trucking to other facilities. It said some additional water has evaporated.
Yet rainfall this year has added at least 331 million gallons to the stack. That water becomes acidic, too.
While the DEP scrambles to send the first barge load of treated waste water into the Gulf, Piney Point’s gypsum stack is showing the strain of holding back those millions of gallons of untreated waste water within it.
In March, an 8-to-12-foot- wide cavity opened on the side of one of the ponds holding the untreated waste water. In June, a 300-foot-long crack appeared in the stack’s wall.
Both were sealed before the untreated waste water could spill off the property, but in the emergency barging permit the EPA pointed to the cavity as a dire development.
“While this event did not result in a release of waste water beyond the seepage collection ditches, it is indicative of the inherent instability of the dike system,” one EPA administrator wrote to another.
In granting the controversial dumping permit, the environmental agency made it clear it had little choice.
“In light of … the recent history of dike problems, EPA and FDEP have concluded that there exists a high likelihood of a dike failure when pond level exceeds normal levels … (and) if above average rainfall occurs this year, it is likely that a catastrophic event could occur.”