PLANT CITY – The state estimates it would cost as much as $45 million to clean up Coronet Industries Inc. should the 980-acre plant close.

In documents released Thursday, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection questions whether the phosphate processor has the money it needs to stay in business. The agency says it is losing confidence in Coronet because of the condition of the century-old plant and the risk of environmental harm.

The DEP wants a financial guarantee from Coronet – estimated at $40 million to $45 million – for the cleanup costs. The company says that the market for its chief product, animal feed supplement, is depressed but that it is willing to come up with a reasonable amount of cash.

Coronet needs to guarantee that enough money is available to the state to clean up the plant “in the event the company should declare bankruptcy, or the company and corporate parents, Onoda Chemical and Mitsui, in Tokyo, should abandon the facility,” DEP Secretary David Struhs said in a letter last week to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A consultant for the DEP estimates the company has 1 billion gallons of wastewater stored in ponds on its property, according to documents released Thursday.

“The current physical condition of the facility, the risk of harm posed by the quantity of process water currently held there and the mounting demands on the resources of Coronet have undermined the confidence of the department in Coronet’s ability to meet its current and long term obligations,” a DEP official wrote in a letter to Tampa lawyer Daniel P. Fernandez, who represents Coronet.

The documents were made public as regulators continued to search Coronet because they believe such cancer-causing wastes as arsenic, cadmium and chromium are being mismanaged.

An affidavit for a warrant filed by DEP environmental manager Elizabeth B. Knauss said she found Coronet discharging hazardous materials into an unlined ditch in an inspection July 23, a little more than a week after The Tampa Tribune first reported that federal officials were investigating widespread complaints of health problems in neighborhoods around the plant.

Days before the July 23 inspection, the Tribune and WFLA, News Channel 8, reported that former Coronet workers said they had been ordered by supervisors to dump hazardous waste and conceal violations.

Requests from the state for more information about how the company treats hazardous wastes have gone unanswered, Knauss said in the affidavit. Coronet spokesman Ron Bartlett said the company was planning to give the information but hadn’t been given enough time to do so.

Bartlett released a copy of a letter from a Coronet attorney that told the state it was planning to comply but couldn’t meet deadlines.

Meanwhile, Struhs and a key aide met with federal officials Thursday in Atlanta to discuss Coronet and other issues. The meeting of Struhs; his deputy, Allan Bedwell; and Jimmy Palmer, EPA regional administrator, lasted several hours.

A DEP spokeswoman said the meeting was “productive,” but she wouldn’t provide details.

Inspection Continues

The state and federal inspection that started Wednesday afternoon continues through today. Regulators are taking water, soil and waste samples and examining records about how the company handles its hazardous wastes. The plant’s wastes include arsenic and other impurities found in raw phosphate.

Samples collected during the inspection will be submitted to an EPA lab in Athens, Ga., for processing. Results aren’t expected for several weeks, DEP spokeswoman Merritt Mitchell said.

Some neighbors of Coronet, such as Elmer Curtis, said they welcome the inspection.

“Well, I’d say it’s about time. It’s long overdue, long overdue,” Curtis said.

Resident Harold King wonders why Coronet hasn’t been more responsive.

“Well, if they went ahead to start with, to keep from getting all the contamination in the ground and the water, they wouldn’t have any problems now,” King said.

Coronet stores its waste and stormwater in nine holding ponds that cover about 350 acres, with the largest covering about 58 acres. The state suspects at least some of neighboring wells were contaminated with wastes leaching from company wastewater ponds and into underground water. Coronet says there is no scientific evidence linking the plant to pollution but pledged to cooperate with inspectors.

The state estimates it would cost $25 million to $30 million to cleanse the contaminated water and $15 million more to line the empty ponds with polyethylene and fill them in with dirt. It would cost about $50,000 a year to monitor the site once it is closed. Mitchell said the figures were compiled by a consultant and subject to revision.

Figures Include `Guesstimates’

Bartlett noted that the state’s own consultant wrote in a letter that his figures were based in part on “guesstimates” and that Coronet should come up with a closure plan of its own. Bartlett said the company hasn’t settled on a figure.

About 30 homes near the plant are drinking bottled water because their wells are polluted with substances that include radium, arsenic, boron, cadmium or lead. Health and environmental officials have been looking at the plant for some time, after complaints that neighbors were getting seriously ill. Officials haven’t confirmed allegations that illness rates are unusually high around Coronet, or if they are, whether Coronet is to blame. At least two old landfills are also being investigated as possible sources of pollution.