TALLAHASSEE – State environmental regulators say they need to spend $45 million in the coming year to pump 750 million gallons of contaminated water from a former phosphate fertilizer plant in Manatee County.
Nearly 800 million gallons of acid- laden water is stored atop radioactive phosphogypsum stacks at the Piney Point plant near Port Manatee. Officials with the Department of Environmental Protection told a state House committee that if the water isn’t removed before the summer rainy season, the chances of a catastrophic spill are high. A previous spill devastated the plant and animal life in the Alafia River.
“Anything it comes in contact with would obviously be killed,” Allan Bedwell, DEP deputy secretary for regulatory programs, told legislators.
The DEP wants to build a pipeline to take the treated water from the old Mulberry Corp. plant to Port Manatee. The water would be loaded onto ships headed out into the Gulf of Mexico where it would be diffused over an 18,000-square-mile area.
Pumping the water out of the ponds is the first stage of a 10-year, $129 million project to clean up and close the site. DEP officials are hopeful once closure is complete, someone will want to buy the former processing plant.
The state has been in control of Piney Point and aplant in Polk County since Mulberry Corp. went bankrupt in early 2001. The DEP has been able to manage the water so far by treating it and trucking it to Tampa Bay.
But the treated water has heavy concentrations of nitrogen, which robs water of oxygen and causes harmful algae blooms. And trucking the water doesn’t get rid of it quickly enough. One inch of rain can increase the volume of water on the gypsum stacks by 12 million gallons, Bedwell said.
“We were within two weeks of closing this site, but the rains in December washed away our effort,” Bedwell said.
The agency could start pumping in two weeks, Bedwell said. The only holdups are getting the necessary permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and money. EPA approval is expected in days, Bedwell said.
But the $45 million for the pumping and dispersal will nearly wipe out the Non-mandatory Land Reclamation Trust Fund, one of 23 trust funds the DEP administers. The fund currently has just $80 million that isn’t earmarked for other projects.
The trust fund was established in 1975 to pay for rehabilitating land mined prior to 1972, before the state started making mining companies restore their strip-mined moonscapes.
Money flowed into the trust fund for 25 years from its share of a $1.68-per-ton severance tax on the phosphate industry. Other state agencies received portions as well.
But in January 2000, the state’s four phosphate companies lobbied the Legislature and won a tax reduction of 20 percent. The share of the tax going to the reclamation fund stopped.
The fund was designed to stop taking severance taxes in 2000 on the assumption that all the old land would have been reclaimed, or there would be enough money to finish the job.
But the Mulberry Corp. bankruptcy left the state looking for money to clean up the gypsum stacks. The Legislature chose to take it from the reclamation fund.
The DEP has spent $20 million so far at the two former Mulberry Corp. sites and expects to have spent a total of $40 million by the end of the fiscal year June 30.
Long-term help may be on the way from the phosphate industry. John Joyce, spokesman for the Florida Phosphate Council, said the industry has approached legislators with a proposal to voluntarily raise the severance tax rate back to 1999 levels.
“We feel like we need to keep that trust fund whole,” Joyce said.
But the companies also want the money reallocated, according to Joyce. The big loser under their proposal would be the the state’s Conservation and Recreational Lands program (CARL), which gets $10 million a year from the trust fund. Joyce said the industry wants the CARL money distributed to counties where the mining is done.
That proposal is sure to be opposed by environmentalists.
“Just because DEP didn’t get the proper protection for the Mulberry sites, CARL is going to lose money,” said Tom Reece, an environmental lawyer. “That shouldn’t happen.”
So far no bills have been filed for official legislative consideration regarding the severance tax or the CARL funds.
But the members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Environment, which heard the DEP presentation, agreed the pumping and stack clean-up needs to begin.