Earlier this week, a compromised liner for one of two retention ponds at a long-defunct phosphate processing facility in northwest Manatee County called Piney Point led to tens of millions of gallons of nutrient-rich water being discharged into Tampa Bay. By Friday, crews were evacuating the surrounding area in anticipation of an “imminent collapse” that would send contaminated water all throughout the surrounding area. The looming catastrophe is both a stark reminder of the threat that currently exists and a broader comment on the many perils of phosphate mining in general.
In my two decades as a journalist, I’ve never covered a story that’s lasted longer than Piney Point. It had long been a persistent problem when I joined the Times 11 years ago and has remained a ticking time bomb since. Yes, sometimes months or even years have gone by without incident, but for those familiar with its legacy, any mention of the otherwise out-of-sight-out-of-mind plot of coastal land tends to cause necks to stiffen.
At its best, Piney Point has been the cast-iron pipes carrying sewage out of a mid-century Florida home, unseen and seemingly functional although there exists little doubt in the owner’s mind that they are no more stable than a pair of old, dry-rotted leather boots. It’s been the suspect roof that hasn’t yet resulted in a tell-tale wet spot on the bedroom ceiling, but whose water-warped eaves suggest waking to a steady drip hitting the floor is an event that falls into the not if but when category.
Constructed as a phosphate processing plant by Borden Chemical in 1966, operations at the site have long plagued the adjacent waterways, its fluoride-laden waste nearly eviscerating nearby Bishop Harbor’s ability to function as something of a nursery for the marine-life food chain within a decade of its opening. By the early 1980s, increased demand and production led to tainted grass that was thought to have caused fluorosis in the cattle who grazed on nearby pastures.
In 1989, a holding tank leaked 23,000-gallons of sulfuric acid, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people, including workers at Port Manatee. In 1991, air releases of sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide created an acid cloud that sickened more than 30 people in the vicinity. Through those years, the site passed through multiple companies’ ownership, the last of which filed for bankruptcy in 2001, eventually leaving the abandoned site under the stewardship of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
In 2003, FDEP got federal approval to pump millions of gallons of treated wastewater from one of the ponds on the site out into the Gulf of Mexico in an effort to alleviate the pond’s ability to overflow or cause leaks once operations had been shuttered. In 2006, current owner HRK Holdings purchased the 600-plus acre property. From 2005 through 2009, a $140 million project was undertaken with the goal of reclaiming the land, and the Gypsum stack ponds were lined with 80-millimeter high-density plastic so that dredged material and spoilage from the expansion of Port Manatee could be disposed of.
However, a 2011 leak caused by a liner tear sent millions of gallons of nutrient-rich water into Tampa Bay each day for weeks on end, totaling somewhere around 170 million gallons by the time it was repaired. On May 29 of that year, FDEP authorized discharges from the giant gypsum stack, hoping to assure their structural integrity. The runoff—contaminated with the heavy metal, cadmium, and high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen—made its way to Bishop Harbor, part of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Buffer Preserve.
Ever since that event, those with various levels of responsibility or concern have debated what to do in order to stave off what surely seemed like an inevitable catastrophe, lest an actual permanent solution replace the periodic band-aid approach. What has occurred this week is, at best, the final canary in the coal mine moment before a collapse of the system sends hundreds of millions of gallons of process water flooding into Port Manatee and onto U.S. 41 and the residences and businesses of surrounding neighborhoods (FEMA issued an evacuation notice for the area immediately north and south of the site late Friday). By the time you’re reading this article, things may very well have gotten much worse.
That high-density plastic liner is now 18 years old and routine inspections revealed tears above the waterline that were reported by HRK three times last year. An outside engineer hired by the company says that the current problem was likely caused by a compromise nearer to the bottom and that the pond could need to be entirely drained in order for it to be repaired.
Fortunately, the tens of millions of gallons of water that has been pumped out into the bay from Berth 12 of the port is not from the highly toxic pond but only “nutrient-rich” water from the one used to house the material from the dredging of the port. However, pollution has already transitioned the surrounding waterways from a sea grass-dominated system to an algae-dominated one, and the ammonia-rich water is essentially food for algae—which is likely to intensify algal blooms, including red tide.
Over the years, many different techniques have been considered and/or attempted. Recent efforts to use a spray dispersion technique that essentially mists away the ponds’ water in a sort of accelerated form of natural evaporation proved too slow to even keep up with water that’s been added by rainfall. And while other companies have claimed they can treat the water to a point at which it can safely be pumped into the bay, decision-makers from the state down to the county have been pushing deep-well injection, a process that would send the wastewater into a well beneath the aquifer. While that may be a proven technology in general (having been used in Manatee County and many other places for different purposes) an actual apple-to-apples comparison simply doesn’t exist and many residents are justifiably concerned about the potential consequences upon our already-at-risk groundwater supplies.
What’s more, the matter is transpiring amid an environment in which Manatee County and the State of Florida have been continuing to issue permits for the expansion of other phosphate mining operations rather than developing a plan to reduce and ultimately eliminate an industry that has caused arguably as much damage to the state over the past half-century as agriculture and development combined.
Mining phosphate is a lose-lose-lose proposition for everyone but the profiteers. It’s labor unintensive, requires an unsustainable amount of groundwater to be pumped from our already threatened water table, and produces toxic byproducts for which there simply are not safe and efficient (read cost-effective) methods of disposal available. Quite simply, it is an endeavor that both Manatee County and Florida should be running away from just as fast as our feet will take us. This being Florida, however, we are, as usual, running in the wrong direction.
*Original article online at https://thebradentontimes.com/we-are-out-of-close-calls-at-piney-point-p22737-137.htm