If the water storage systems fail, millions of gallons of contaminated water could again flow into Bishop Harbor.
The owners of a former phosphate processing plant here have failed to comply with several environmental mandates after millions of gallons of tainted factory water spilled into Bishop Harbor during a Port Manatee dredging project.
HRK Holdings LLC has blown by a number of state deadlines to repair hazardous conditions at its Piney Point property, a situation exacerbated by an abundance of rain this summer.
Water is quickly filling contaminated phosphate reservoirs and the emergency storage systems in place to catch untreated overflow.
If the cracked and aging systems were to fail, 525 million gallons of rainwater — the equivalent of 21,000 averaged-sized swimming pools and liquid that is potentially laden with radioactive phosphate residue — would flood into Bishop Harbor, new records reveal.
“This has become the new poster child for what can go wrong at a phosphogypsum stack,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of the local environmental group ManaSota-88 Inc. “And the problems don’t look like they’re going away any time soon.”
The brimming reservoirs have filled amid a failure by the state agency tasked with environmental oversight and the bankrupt property owner to agree on a long-term solution.
The cost to safeguard nearby water bodies has been estimated as high as $20 million.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has pinned the bulk of the burden for remediation on HRK, though the state agency has indicated it will step in if necessary.
But environmentalists now worry that the threat to Tampa Bay could become an eerie repeat of a spill at the same site two years ago that dumped an estimated 170 million gallons of toxic water into estuaries.
DEP officials insist that there is enough capacity at Piney Point to handle the water building up there.
HRK executives could not be reached for this story.
Officials at Port Manatee declined to comment on the situation, citing advice from their attorneys.
Built in 1966, the Borden Chemical Co. opened the Piney Point plant in north Manatee County to process phosphate fertilizer. Because the waste from the fabrication is considered toxic — containing uranium, radium and sulfuric acid — byproducts are stored in massive container beds.
The Piney Point property has changed hands five times since its opening, and it has not made fertilizer since the early 2000s.
But the deserted storage containers remain, collecting rain in a system of massive ponds and reservoirs.
With two dozen gypsum stack systems in Florida now housing more than 1 billion tons of phosphate waste, environmental groups fear Piney Point will set a dangerous precedent for future regulations.
“The state made the first mistake of selling the property, then permitting activity that shouldn’t have occurred there, and now it looks like they’re not doing anything to keep the property owner honest,” Compton said. “It’s just a matter of time before something else goes wrong.”
Massive spill in 2011
Florida has spent more than $140 million attempting to safely close the Piney Point plant since the defunct Mulberry Corp. abandoned the 680-acre site after a 2001 bankruptcy filing, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Tribune.
HRK Holdings sensed an opportunity in 2004.
The firm requested approval from the DEP to buy the abandoned operation and use the phosphate gypsum systems to store sediment from Port Manatee’s Berth 12 dredging, a project aimed at drawing larger cargo ships to the area.
Although it had never been done before, and environmentalists lobbied against the plan, the state approved the $4.3 million sale in 2006. The permits for dredging disposal were approved not long afterward.
Contractors hired by HRK lined the stacks with high-density plastic so that dredged material from Port Manatee could be safely disposed of.
“It’s a success story at this point, in terms of having the work created there and having the site fully transition to the new owner,” John Coates, deputy director of the DEP’s water resource management division, said in early 2011.
But midway through the dredging, the stacks ripped.
A spill in May 2011 released 2,700 gallons of toxic water each minute into Bishop Harbor, a shallow estuary on the southern lip of Tampa Bay. The total was estimated by the DEP at about 170 million gallons, or enough water to serve 425,000 average U.S. households for a day.
The water was considered toxic from its prolonged exposure to lead, cadmium, chromium, fluoride, zinc, antimony, copper, ammonia and even arsenic — at certain concentrations that may pose health risks, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“These radioactive stacks, which re-circulate acidic process water, will be here forever. Florida will have to deal with them long after the mining companies are gone,” said Beverly Griffiths, who chairs the phosphate mining committee for the Florida Sierra Club. “Piney Point teaches us that building a gypsum stack so near the water is a bad idea.”
The state and HRK repaired a tear in the stacks caused by crane accident just weeks before Piney Point became the repository for 1.1 million cubic yards of excavated sediment, according to emails obtained by the Herald-Tribune.
The port went ahead with the project, and a similar rip was blamed for the toxic spill.
A soil cover was never installed by the state or HRK after Mulberry abandoned the property. The protective barrier is used to blanket the exterior of gypsum stacks to prevent the type of sun-cracking and rain damage that now threatens Piney Point, records show.
More than two years following the incident, little has been done to clean up the site.
Although the rip that spurred the 2011 disaster was ultimately repaired, and the Port Manatee dredging project concluded later that year, the fall-out from the spill still lingers today.
525 million gallons of toxic water
Rain has now become Piney Point’s biggest enemy.
The storage containers reached capacity from heavy rainfall last summer, prompting the state in August 2012 to begin funneling runoff into a 77-acre emergency container not designed for those purposes.
HRK then had 30 days to come up with a solution for how it would remove that water. A year has now passed without an answer.
Because of the new emergency storage, there is now about 375 million gallons of capacity in the collection systems, according to a state update.
The DEP estimates that that capacity “should be sufficient to handle even unusually excessive rainfall in the immediate and intermediate terms.”
But the 525 million gallons of toxic water now pooled at Piney Point is nearly double the amount from a year ago.
If that pace continues, emergency containers would overflow in less than 18 months, records show.
DEP officials contend that the threat of an untreated discharge at Piney Point is minimal.
“Based on the rainfall scenarios evaluated in the water balance calculations, it is extremely unlikely the existing storage capacity will be exceeded,” DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller wrote in an email.
Under the terms of an original administrative order, HRK was given a May 2013 deadline to provide full financial assurance for water management and long-term care of the gypsum stack system.
But that obligation, too, has gone unmet.
“The department is currently investigating how HRK can meet its full obligations under the Rule in light of its financial condition and its ability to access sufficient funds,” Miller wrote. “The department believes that it will be able to establish a schedule for HRK’s full compliance with its financial assurance responsibility, through a series of incremental payments.”
Bankruptcy and few options
The delays and added costs from the 2011 spill forced HRK to file for bankruptcy protection, leaving few viable options for the company to meet its obligations.
Almost all of the company’s assets are tied to land value.
HRK plans to emerge by raffling off increments of its Piney Point land to industrial users.
A portion of those proceeds will be earmarked for environmental remediation, federal bankruptcy records show. Regions Bank has established a $2.5 million line of credit for that purpose, from proceeds of a nearly $6 million sale of 30 acres at the site to Air Products and Chemicals Inc.
That money will be used to fix liners punctured during the 2011 spill; move dredge sediment; and grade dredge material for healthier stormwater runoff. The DEP ordered the repairs more than a year ago, according to state documents.
Some scientists say that delay could be costly.
“There could be a possibility of more seepage along the bottom of the stack if they have not repaired the rips,” said Steven Richardson, reclamation research director for the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute. “Calcium sulfate is the largest threat to contamination.”
A Tampa bankruptcy attorney representing HRK says the company is waiting for the judge in its case to approve three additional land sales that would raise another $9.7 million to fund cleanup efforts.
But HRK owes creditors $21 million — including about $14 million to Regions. In all, the Piney point property is worth roughly $33 million, according to the bankruptcy filing.
“We’re working on certain immediate issues that DEP wanted addressed,” HRK bankruptcy attorney Scott Stichter said. “We’re still talking about a long-term treatment plan.”
“Not enough resources …”
Even before the May 2011 spill, Piney Point had a checkered past.
In 1989, 23,000 gallons of sulfuric acid leaked from a holding tank, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate.
Three employees have been killed in accidents there, and another sulfur release into the air once sickened more than 30 people.
When the DEP took over Piney Point in 2001, record rainfall had added more than 200 million gallons of tainted water to the stacks.
The state discharged millions of gallons of ammonia-laden waste into ditches that flowed into Bishop Harbor, spurring a reported algae bloom.
DEP officials also received federal permission to deposit millions of gallons of treated waste 100 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
“There’s a long list of problems,” said Karen Stewart, a historian at the phosphate research institute.
When closed, stacks must have a barrier layer on top to reduce rain infiltration, decreasing the flow of untreated runoff. Most also have a vegetative cover, according to a 142-page report produced by the institute.
But despite having spent $144 million to close Piney Point, the state completed neither of those safeguards.
Some environmental experts believe the lack of safeguards coupled with dozens of DEP layoffs that have reduced enforcement staff have amplified the threat at Piney Point.
“This all falls back to that problem — there are just not enough resources to handle this,” said Thomas Reese, a St. Petersburg environmental attorney.
Asking for action
With Piney Point’s issues showing little resolution anytime soon, environmentalists have stepped up their efforts to press the state for action.
Last year, ManaSota-88 asked the DEP’s inspector general to investigate the agency’s oversight, but the review was dismissed within three months.
The group now is finalizing plans to petition the EPA to step in, and it also is contemplating a lawsuit against the state and HRK over potential violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
For its part, HRK is defending itself against a handful of lawsuits in Manatee County from contractors who are seeking damages for unpaid work on the stacks.
HRK is suing the contractor that designed and retrofitted the stacks to hold the Port Manatee dredging materials. A case mediation conference has been scheduled for Wednesday, records show.