TAMPA – A storm-induced breach at a reservoir Sunday caused a fertilizer company to dump acidic wastewater into a creek that feeds Hillsborough Bay.
State environmental officials said the threat could amount to millions of gallons. A Cargill Crop Nutrition spokesman said company engineers did not know how much was being poured into Archie Creek north of Gibsonton.
“Believe me, I will have the number tomorrow,” Vice President Gray Gordon said late Sunday. “They probably should have the number, but they don’t have it.”
The reservoir holds about 150 million gallons of phosphogypsum wastewater and is surrounded by a retention ditch that can hold an estimated 30 million gallons. As the breach grew quickly to 30 feet across, engineers trying to keep the ditch intact opened a valve to release at least some of the flow into the creek.
Gordon said he did not know the valve’s maximum capacity, but he said there was no chance of the entire reservoir draining before the breach could be repaired after the worst of Hurricane Frances had passed.
Cargill Crop Nutrition, a unit of Cargill Inc., was treating the escaping water with a caustic solution to lower its acidity as it was being discharged. State officials said the company ran out of the solution, however, and more had to be trucked in.
“At this time, there is acidic water being discharged into Archie Creek,” said Russell Schweiss, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, at 8 p.m.
Gordon did not know when the solution ran out but said the additional trucks arrived at 9 p.m.
Wastewater from phosphate plants is high in nitrogen and phosphorous, which enables algae to thrive. That in turn can reduce the amount of oxygen in the water, killing fish and other marine life.
“Archie Creek is the issue in terms of environmental damage,” Gordon said. “I don’t think it is going to affect Hillsborough Bay.”
DEP Secretary Colleen Castille announced the breach at a 4 p.m. briefing in Tallahassee, saying as many as 120 million gallons could be spilled. Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean said she didn’t learn of it until about 4:30 p.m.
Gordon said the state and county were notified after the breach was discovered between noon and 1 p.m. The company spoke to state officials before beginning to dump water into the creek, he added.
The reservoir is 3 feet deep on average, Gordon said. The hurricane’s winds combined with the high water level from heavy rains of the past month eroded the southwest part of the dike.
Cargill will use backhoes and bulldozers to close the breach once the rain subsides and the wind dies down.
“If it was dry and we didn’t have this hurricane, we’d have people up there closing it,” Gordon said. “But it is just doing to depend on the weather.”
Work could begin this afternoon or Tuesday.
“The magic question is how much water we are going to discharge,” he said, “and we just don’t know yet.”
Environmental Damage Uncertain
Gordon said he did not know how much environmental damage might occur.
Gabriel Vargo, a biology professor at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, said treating the wastewater with lime could help.
Choppy water from the hurricane, the higher tide and the increased runoff also could help limit the damage.
Spills related to phosphate mining have plagued Tampa Bay and its tributaries for decades.
Last month, about 4 million gallons of muddy water escaped a holding area at IMC Phosphate’s Keysville property, dumping a milky sediment into Mizelle Creek, which feeds the Alafia River.
Ten years ago, the same site flooded the river with nearly 500 million gallons of water from a settling pond. Other events that year included two spills farther east and a sinkhole opening in the limestone beneath IMC-Agrico’s New Wales fertilizer plant, releasing gypsum and gypsum pond water into groundwater.
Fish Kills Common
Significant fish kills and related environmental damage have occurred as well.
In 1997, a dam broke at Mulberry Phosphates, releasing more than 50 million gallons of acidic phosphogypsum water that poisoned about 35 miles of the Alafia and killed an estimated 3.1 million fish. The company filed for bankruptcy protection, complicating state efforts to negotiate a $4.6 million settlement with the insurance carriers.
Two of the fish kills occurred from acidic water spills in 1993 and 1988 at the same industrial site as Sunday’s incident.
Farther south at Piney Point in 1991, a release of sulfur gas sickened people, and an acid spill forced the evacuation of Port Manatee, the Manatee Stockade and nearby homes.
Researchers Buddy Jaudon and Michael Messano contributed to this report. Editor David Wasson can be reached at (850) 222-8382. Reporter Ted Byrd can be reached at (813) 259-7679. Reporter Guy Boulton can be reached at (813) 259-7624.