Regulators say the leak from the former Piney Point phosphate plant can be fixed
Millions of gallons of potentially contaminated water are being released into Tampa Bay in an effort to prevent the catastrophic collapse of a reservoir at the former Piney Point phosphate plant.
The water — mixed with sand and likely filled with oil, heavy metals and other industrial waste — was pumped during dredging work at Port Manatee. It has been there for more than a month in two reservoirs carved out of radioactive gypsum stacks at the former Piney Point plant, across U.S. 41 from the port.
The protective lining in one of the reservoirs sprang a leak, allowing water to seep through the side of one gypsum stack. It was feared that the leak would cause a “catastrophic release” of potentially tainted water and radioactive soil that “could result in personal injury or severe property and environmental damage,” according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
To prevent the collapse of the stacks, left over by phosphate fertilizer production more than a decade ago, the DEP on Sunday ordered that the reservoir be drained into Tampa Bay at the rate of 4 million gallons a day.
DEP officials say they have likely averted a catastrophic collapse of the gypsum stacks. The primary concern now is the toxicity of the water that had been stored in the reservoir.
Those officials say initial tests indicate that seawater comprises the bulk of what has been released. But regulators await test results that will show if the water contains radioactive radium, heavy metals or nutrients that can trigger algal blooms.
“As the discharge is seawater, we do not expect any significant concerns that will arise from these results,” said DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller.
Environmental groups worry that the emergency release will pollute the bay.
Having been exposed to daily ship traffic, the bay bottom from the port could contain “toxic by-products,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of the environmental group Manasota-88. “How safe is the dredged material?”
The lined reservoir is on a phosphogypsum stack, a large hill of slightly radioactive waste left over from phosphate fertilizer production. The stack system contains four reservoirs, which formerly held acidic water from phosphate processing.
HRK, the company that took over the phosphate site, discovered the leak weeks ago, chief executive Jordan Levy said.
Because the dredge material is considered to be polluted, it cannot be disposed of in a regular landfill.
Under normal operations, the sediments would be allowed to settle out in the reservoir while clean seawater slowly drains back to the harbor.
Meanwhile, a “small amount” of water also is leaking through the phosphogypsum stack, Levy said. That water is flowing to a ditch that leads to Bishop Harbor. The concern there is that the water could turn acidic or pick up radioactive particles as it travels through the mound.
The reservoir contains several hundred million gallons of dredge material, Levy said, and it is not known how long it will take to drain the reservoir and get the liner repaired.
The dredge project to expand Port Manatee is about half-finished and is expected to be done ahead of schedule, in about 35 days.
Dredge material is now being placed in another reservoir on the stack site, said Port Manatee spokesman Steve Tyndal.
Tyndal said the county-owned seaport is committed to making sure it protects area waterways and remains in frequent contact with the DEP.
“We wouldn’t be a party to anything that may suggest we don’t care about the environment,” Tyndal said.
Port Manatee, across U.S. 41 from the former Piney Point plant, is deepening its harbor to accept larger ships after an expansion of the Panama Canal.
The port struck an agreement with HRK for disposal of the dredged bay bottom in the gypsum stack. HRK is transforming the remainder of the 680-acre property into Eastport Terminal, a distribution center for port-related businesses.
Levy said that the rupture in the reservoir may have been caused by heavy equipment, and that HRK has improved its operations through better supervision and changes to equipment, to prevent another breach.
Additionally, state environmental regulators say the rupture can be welded and checked to ensure it is again watertight.
The DEP is expediting tests for possible pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus and chloride. It is also checking for heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and radium.
Eventually, the entire mound will be sealed.
This is the second time an emergency discharge has been made from the Piney Point site since its former owner, Mulberry Corp. went bankrupt and abandoned it in 2001.
After the DEP took over the property, heavy rainfall in 2003 nearly caused the reservoirs, holding 1.2 billion gallons of acidic fertilizer process water, to collapse.
The DEP averted disaster by treating the water and hauling 250 million gallons of it 100 miles offshore in the summer and fall of 2003.
The state spent $144 million in taxpayer money to clean up the troubled site before selling it to HRK in 2006. The company is taking responsibility for the remaining clean-up and maintenance.
While environmental groups viewed HRK’s takeover as positive, the leak raises new concerns. Compton worries that the leak could be a warning sign.
“There’s no such thing as a liner that doesn’t leak over time,” Compton said. “This could be the beginning of problems there.”
State environmental regulators say the leak from one of three reservoirs atop the mound can be welded and checked to ensure it is again watertight. The reservoir is being drained.
So far, tests show the spill is seawater from the dredged soil, Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said.
Yet the DEP is still awaiting test results for an array of potential pollutants.
*Original article online at https://www.heraldtribune.com/article/LK/20110601/News/605199762/SH