TALLAHASSEE — A barge hauling millions of gallons of treated waste water to be dumped into the Gulf wasn’t properly equipped for the job and had to return to Port Manatee with nearly half its load.
The mishap is one in a long line of problems that have kept the state Department of Environmental Protection from removing the highly acidic water from the defunct Piney Point phosphate processing plant.
The department originally said all the waste water in the barge was dumped, but later said a substantial amount was brought back to port.
The DEP is in a race to lower water levels at the plant before rains push the water over or through the gypsum stack containing it. Such a spill into Bishop Harbor and Tampa Bay could kill millions of fish and harm both water bodies for decades, DEP officials have said.
The DEP requested a permit to dump the water in the Gulf in February.
The agency won a permit in April to dump more than 500 million gallons through November. Dumping, which began Sunday, was supposed to have begun in June.
Because of delays and the decision to use one barge, the agency plans to dump at least 200 million gallons into the Gulf before the deadline, rather than the 535 million it has permits for.
DEP finally set out this week with one barge filled with 7.5 million gallons. But its monitoring plans were incomplete, and so, critics say, were the dumping plans. There were also no contingency plans if problems occurred during dumping.
“This is the first time we’re doing operations like this, so you’re going to have variables,” said DEP spokeswoman Deena Wells.
The barge dumped 4.2 million gallons before the point at which the tugboat would normally stop pushing it and swing around and use a heavy cable to pull it. But the barge wasn’t equipped with a required safety device to protect the crew — and a DEP scientist on deck to monitor the dumping — should the cable snap.
So the barge hauled 3.2 million gallons of the treated waste back to port.
The barge will be refilled and make the nearly 400-mile trip once again — dumping another 4 million gallons — before safety equipment is installed.
The DEP knew the missing device would mean less waste would be dumped during the first couple of barge trips, but didn’t know how much could be discharged before the barge would have to return to port, Wells said.
The agency never shared that information with the public, and sent out inaccurate information about the initial discharge.
On Monday, the DEP sent out e-mails saying the entire load had been discharged.
“The first 7.5 million gallons was dispersed during a 140-mile round trip once the barge was 120 miles offshore,” Wells wrote.
During a telephone interview Wednesday, DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said “everything went smoothly.”
It was only after being pressed about the amount of waste water discharged that Wells and Miller acknowledged that nearly half the load returned with the barge.
Wells said the agency wasn’t trying to hide information, but simply got its signals crossed.
While engineers knew the agency couldn’t discharge the entire 7.5 million gallons during the first few trips, they were harried and never relayed that information to the department’s public information department, Wells said.
“Talk about tripping over your own feet again,” said Mitchell Roffer, a biological oceanographer from Miami appointed by a coalition of fishermen and spongers to monitor the dumping.
Not being able to dump all the waste wasn’t the only problem the DEP had on this trip.
A large plume of water, apparently from the Mississippi River, made it difficult to monitor the waste by satellite, despite dyes added to make the waste easier to follow.
Roffer also said that while the lack of monitoring was troubling, it’s unlikely that any problems would occur the day after 4 million gallons were dumped. If problems do occur they probably would show up several weeks after and hundreds of miles away from the dumping, Roffer said.
“A lot of things could happen. One dump is not the final exam on this,” Roffer said.