MANATEE COUNTY — Florida taxpayers continue to pay thousands of dollars a day to prevent an environmental disaster at two bankrupt fertilizer plants, a report released this week shows.
And the bills continue to mount as the state looks for ways to clean up the mess that Mulberry Corp. left behind when financial ruin forced it out of the phosphate business in Manatee and Polk counties.
In a report to Manatee County Judge Janette Dunnigan, state-paid contractors overseeing Mulberry’s Piney Point plant outlined how they’ve spent more than $640,000 since February to keep millions of gallons of acidic water from polluting groundwater or spilling into Tampa Bay.
Part of the cost, according to the report, includes the repair of two 12-inch water pumps, a leaky pipe, and water seepage detection equipment, all left in disrepair by the now-bankrupt Mulberry Corp.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spent an additional $160,000 to keep Florida Power & Light from turning off the electricity at Mulberry’s two Florida plants in February. Later, the EPA spent another $240,000 to keep the pumps running at the plants.
In all, more than $1 million in state and federal dollars have been spent to bail out Mulberry.
If the state gets its way and shuts down the Piney Point site, the final bill could end up in the tens of millions.
That decision should come soon, as the state goes to court to win the right to shut down Mulberry’s plant in northern Manatee County.
Last week, the state Department of Environmental Protection sent a legal notice to Piney Point’s owners, seeking a three-day, non-jury trial in mid-July to win permission for the shutdown.
Dunnigan, who would hear the case, has yet to schedule DEP vs. Piney Point Phosphates on her court calendar.
Closing the plant would require treating Piney Point’s acidic water and covering massive stacks of radioactive phosphogypsum with a plastic liner, a move that could cost taxpayers an additional $15 million.
Local environmentalists, who have been fighting the phosphate industry from Fort Myers to Tampa this year, think it’s worth it. They see the state’s effort to shut Piney Point down as a skirmish in a larger battle against the industry.
Led by the Charlotte County Commission, Lee County and Sarasota County are working together to stop a phosphate mine expansion proposed by IMC Phosphates in Manatee County.
Environmentalists have won broad support for Piney Point’s shutdown and their challenge to the mine expansion because phosphate in one county can hurt the environment several counties away as toxins are carried through complex waterways.
“This is a plant that should have been shut down years ago. It should never have gotten to the point of deterioration it’s in now,” said Glenn Compton, director of local environmental group Manasota-88.
“It’s necessary to spend that kind of money to keep an environmental disaster from happening,” he said.
Lawyers for the plant’s owner object to a state-ordered shutdown because it would make the plant worthless.
“Piney Point is still trying to sell those assets,” said Mulberry attorney Paul Amundsen.
The Tallahassee lawyer said the plant, with its recent repairs by the state, is capable of processing phosphate and doesn’t need to be shut down.
“If there was a market for the product, it could still be running,” he said.
The market for phosphate fertilizer, however, has been in decline since the mid-90s and has yet to rebound to levels at which Piney Point could make a profit.
Last month, an agreement was reached to remove up to 300 million gallons of acidic water from Mulberry’s Polk County plant.
There, acidic water is being piped to the nearby Cargill plant and trucked to IMC Phosphates’ New Wales and South Pierce plants located south of Mulberry.
The closest plant to Piney Point, however, is miles away, so it is unlikely that another phosphate company could take the toxic water.
Instead, acidic water could be treated before being pumped into Tampa Bay.