TAMPA – A month ago, Cargill Crop Nutrition received an award for its environmental stewardship.
On Tuesday, company representatives stood watch as government officials surveyed the environmental damage created when the fertilizer manufacturer dumped 60-million gallons of acidic water into a creek leading to Hillsborough Bay.
Water in the bay tested normal on Tuesday, but officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they saw a handful of dead stingrays, mullet and snook floating along a 75-foot stretch of shore.
Local crabbers reported pulling up traps with dead animals, and plants suffered damage.
“We did see some vegetation burns out there today, so it’s evident that what went through there was unkind to the vegetation,” said Rick Garrity, director of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
The water release began Sunday after waves in a Cargill retention pond whipped up by Frances created a 60-foot-wide hole in a dike holding polluted water used to make fertilizer from phosphate.
Before sending the water down Archie Creek, Cargill treated it with a neutralizing agent. But the water in the creek tested high for acidity on Monday.
Cargill stopped discharging the water at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. But it may need to release more in the coming days in anticipation of more rain and, possibly, Hurricane Ivan.
“They still have a whole lot of water there that they need to figure out what to do with. They’re pretty much brimming,” said Russell Schweiss, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
This all comes one month after the Alafia River Basin Board honored Cargill for its restoration of 4 miles of company-owned coastline, a requirement of Cargill’s operating permits. The board said Cargill provided “significant environmental benefits to the Tampa Bay estuary,” an important feeding ground and nursery for wildlife.
To protect the environment, Cargill also operates as a no-discharge facility. The company recycles the water it uses to make fertilizer, stores it at its sprawling industrial site on U.S. 41 and counts on evaporation to maintain the level of the retention ponds. Other facilities receive permits to treat and discharge water.
But unusually heavy rainfall in July and August resulted in excess water at the plant, making it vulnerable to an accident. The state has been monitoring the plant daily since early August, and in September ordered the company to study its water management practices.
“What happened here was they were trying to do the least harm to the environment and it ended up backfiring,” Schweiss said.
Ronda Storms, a county commissioner and vice chairwoman of the EPC, said that Cargill has been one of the “more responsible phosphate industry companies.”
“This is very disappointing,” Storms said Tuesday after touring the plant. “It’s a nightmare situation. They’re going to be held accountable, regardless of whether it was a hurricane or not a hurricane.”
Cargill likely will face fines.