The Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposes an unusual way to deal with a grave pollution threat to Tampa Bay. It wants to discharge nutrient-laced water into the Gulf of Mexico.

The agency is seeking emergency approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its plan to get rid of the 600 million gallons of acidic wastewater at the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County.

The idea of dumping tainted water in the Gulf may seem objectionable, especially coming from the department charged with safeguarding Florida resources. But DEP has little choice. It considers Piney Point the most serious pollution threat in the state.

Proposal Poses Little Threat

Its proposal would protect Tampa Bay from a devastating spill of contaminated water but should pose little threat to the Gulf.

Given the circumstances, EPA should approve the permit. But the state should take steps to ensure it is never again caught in such a predicament.

Some background: In 2001, DEP was forced to take over management of two Mulberry Co. phosphate operations, including Piney Point, when the firm went bankrupt.

The company had a history of wastewater spills and poorly maintained plants, so the agency had its hands full trying to safely shut down the facilities.

But the situation became desperate when Tropical Storm Gabrielle’s torrential rains caused the acid water atop the gypsum mound at Piney Point to nearly overflow the containment berms. This acid water causes devastating fish kills. DEP treated the water to neutralize its acidity and dumped some 10 million nutrient-laden gallons into Tampa Bay’s Bishop’s Harbor, which has been designated an Outstanding Florida Water.

The nutrient water, while not immediately deadly, is still a serious pollutant. It causes fish-killing algae blooms, degrades water quality and smothers sea grasses.

The public reacted angrily to the discharges and DEP soon halted them. It began treating the water with reverse osmosis, which thoroughly cleaned the water and made it safe to discharge. But the process was slow. DEP also sought other ways to get rid of the water, working out arrangements for phosphate plants, utilities and local governments to take some of the water. It increased the height of some of the berms.

The outlook was encouraging. DEP had drained 144 million gallons, enough to empty one of several ponds within the gypsum mound, and was working on putting plastic liners on the emptied pond. This is essential, since the acidic content of the gypsum mound causes any rain that falls into the pond to become acidic itself. Lining the mound would stop this cycle of contamination.

But before the lining of the pond could be completed, December’s deluges quickly filled all the ponds again. The rains also eliminated the local governments’ and industries’ need for the water. DEP was back where it started and has had to discharge treated water into Bishop’s Harbor.

And the outlook is very troublesome. The gypsum mound is near capacity, and a wet spring or a tropical storm could cause a catastrophic spill.

So DEP has come up with a plan that would quickly bring the situation under control It proposes to treat the water to eliminate its acidity and pump it into empty Tampa Electric Co. coal barges returning to the Mississippi River. The barges would be equipped with sprayers and would disperse the water far offshore as they crossed the Gulf.

Allan Bedwell, DEP’s deputy secretary of regulatory programs, says this would have no impact on marine life or water quality. He says the Mississippi River discharges 4,300 metric tons of nitrogen a day. The barge discharges would Release 1 ton a day. He estimates the discharges would last about 100 days. The likelihood of the Gulf’s sustaining any harm is minimal. Moreover, as DEP’s regional director, Deborah Getzoff, points out, should Piney Point suffer a spill, that contaminated water would ultimately make its way to the Gulf – after destroying one of Tampa Bay’s richest marine life sanctuaries.

The plan would provide DEP a means to quickly empty the site of the polluted water and allow the agency to line the mound and bring the pollution threat to, as Bedwell says, “closure.”

That closure will be costly. The Piney Point cleanup will cost about $124 million. The cleanup of Mulberry Co.’s Mulberry plant will cost another $42 million.

Problem Could Have Been Avoided

This whole noxious situation could have been avoided with regulations allowing the state to reject permit applicants with a history of environmental problems.

Florida also should require companies undertaking such hazardous operations to provide a bond or insurance certificate to keep them from abandoning their operations and leaving the public to clean up their mess. But those are matters for lawmakers and regulators to deal with during the legislative session.

The immediate issue is to eliminate the Piney Point threat. The barge dispersal plan is not, as Bedwell concedes, an attractive solution. But it seems to be the best one.