MANATEE COUNTY — A top Department of Environmental Protection official said Tuesday that the defunct Piney Point phosphate plant is the state’s biggest threat to the environment.
“This site constitutes one of the largest risks to the environment in Florida’s history,” DEP Deputy Secretary Allan Bedwell said. “It’s our most significant environmental challenge.”
In a five-story-high holding pool made of packed gypsum at the plant is 1.2 billion gallons of toxic waste water left there two years ago when the Mulberry Corp. went bankrupt. It’s now the DEP’s problem.
Bedwell toured Piney Point to find out how the four pools of water, which is radioactive and rich in ammonia, heavy metals and phosphates, are holding up since 10 inches of rain fell over the weekend.
Each inch of rain adds 12 million gallons to the reservoir. Environmental contractors hired by the state to manage the plant until it can be emptied say the drenching set them back two months in drying out the facility.
The state is proceeding with a plan to rid Piney Point of about half the waste water by dumping it in a wide swath over the Gulf of Mexico.
First, however, they plan to treat the water in a process that will remove most of the bad stuff but leave it rich in nitrogen.
Some fishermen and spongers who rely on the Gulf for their living call that a horrible idea. The DEP and most environmental groups, however, agree that it’s the lesser of two evils because a spill of the untreated water into Tampa Bay would be catastrophic.
The DEP hopes to send the rest to reclaimed water plants in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, to the city of St. Petersburg, and possibly to other phosphate plants that can use the water for continued fertilizer processing.
The Gulf dumping, which has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency even though it’s never been tried before, should begin by the end of June.
The DEP has said it will increase its monitoring of the Gulf, with more testing of water samples, closer observation of sea creatures, and more vigilant examination of satellite images for signs of any change in what the state calls the “dispersal zones.”
The effort is to try to avoid an environmental catastrophe that would dwarf a similar one in 1997 at Mulberry’s other now-defunct plant near the Alafia River in Polk County.
That spill released about 50 million gallons of the same acidic water, which killed millions of fish and vegetation along a 37-mile section of the river’s floodplain.
Also on Tuesday, Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton called the proposed dumping in the Gulf “the best worst thing” to do to solve the problem.
He agreed with Bedwell that not moving the waste could lead to a much worse disaster.
However, Thaxton and the other commissioners aren’t thrilled with the proposed dumping. They voted to send a letter to the DEP in an effort to make sure there will be sufficient monitoring of how the dumping affects the Gulf.
“We are definitely in harm’s way of the dumping,” Thaxton said.
The commissioners also want assurances that the DEP will take the appropriate steps to make sure that a similar situation never occurs again.
The state has estimated that maintenance and closing expenses at Piney Point will exceed $100 million.