PALMETTO – The federal government on Wednesday gave the state permission to dump more than half a billion gallons of waste water from the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant into the Gulf of Mexico.
But an improved way to treat the water could cut the amount dumped in the Gulf – possibly by 1 million gallons a day.
Mobile Process Technology, a Memphis, Tenn.-based company that cleans industrial waste water, is negotiating with the state to set up another reverse-osmosis filtration system at the Manatee County facility, where lakes of phosphate process water could cause a catastrophic acid spill.
Another company, U.S. Filter, is treating the Piney Point waste water so it can be piped directly into Bishop’s Harbor, an aquatic preserve that flushes into Tampa Bay.
But because the waste water is so laden with minerals, algae and other solids, the company can clean only about 300,000 gallons a day – not enough to deal with what has become a perpetual emergency.
During rainy periods over the past several months, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has had to release into the harbor millions of gallons of waste water that was only partially treated with lime to neutralize the acid. The emergency measure kept untreated water from breaching the dikes but not without ecological consequences.
Algae blooms and dying seagrass precluded further discharges of anything but fully treated water into the harbor.
Forced To Find An Alternative
Mobile Process Technology proposes to add a step to remove many of the solids before the water goes through reverse-osmosis filters. Company officials say that could double or triple the amount being treated to drinking water quality.
“We should be able to treat between 800,000 and 1 million gallons a day,” said company President Frank Kraft.
Every gallon treated would be one less dumped into the Gulf.
The waste water going to the Gulf will leave in barges that bring coal from New Orleans to Tampa Electric Co.’s power plants.
The plan calls for partially treated waste to be sprayed across a 20,000-square-mile area on the barges’ return trip.
The controversial emergency permit, issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requires the barges to be at least 46 miles offshore before beginning to disperse the nutrient-laden water. The permit expires Nov. 30.
DEP could begin trucking water to the barges in a couple of weeks, as soon as contracts are resolved with the shipping company.
Each truck holds 5,000 gallons, and it will take about 400 to fill the smallest barge.
The longer-term solution is to build a 2-mile pipeline to Port Manatee. That would take 30 to 45 days, said DEP spokeswoman Deena Wells.
The gypsum stacks are towering time bombs made of the byproduct of phosphate mining and brimming with up to 700 million gallons of acidic water.
These, along with another stack in Polk County, were abandoned when Mulberry Phosphates went into bankruptcy two years ago. That left the state with the problem of getting rid of the contaminated water and ultimately closing and sealing the stacks.
But heavy rain, especially 16 inches in December, wiped out most of the progress made in 18 months of siphoning off partially and fully treated water.
As summer rains and hurricane season approach, the danger of a catastrophic spill looms large. The last tropical storm to hit the Tampa Bay area dumped 13 inches of rain.
Water going to the Gulf for disposal will get partial treatment with a double dose of lime to reduce the acidity.
But it will have a high level of nutrients. Dumping the 537 million gallons would add 125 tons of nitrogen to the Gulf, Wells said.
That is a minimal amount compared with farm and stormwater runoff flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River, she said.
That nutrient-rich water, essentially fertilizer, has created an area in the Gulf called the Dead Zone.
The nutrients cause an explosion of algae that eventually empties the water of oxygen. At its largest, the zone can cover up to 8,700 square miles from the river delta to Texas.
“Most living things that can leave the area do so,” said Nancy Rabalais, a professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. “Anything that can’t will die off.”
Rabalais and some ocean- oriented environmental organizations have expressed reservations over the Gulf dispersion plan, called “the lesser of two evils” by most involved in the decision.
The EPA permit also requires the U.S. Department of State to notify Mexico and the International Maritime Organization.
There has been no reaction from either, a State Department official said Wednesday.
Reducing The Dumping
Mobile Process at first wasn’t interested in tackling the Piney Point project.
“After I saw the chemistry of the water, I didn’t want to put a [reverse-osmosis] plant there,” Kraft said. “I elected not to.”
It’s the same process used at Tampa Bay Water’s desalination plant near Apollo Beach.
But if there are too many solids in the water, the filters clog quickly and clean less water.
Kraft said a process developed by IMC Agrico, another phosphate company, seemed to provide an answer by removing many of the solids before the water hits the membranes.
“They seemed to have some pretty good medicine,” he said.
Marrying the IMC pretreatment to the company’s reverse-osmosis operation could speed the treatment, though it’s been tested only on a small scale.
But scientists at the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research believe it will work.
“The process has been demonstrated to work on a small scale. We still have to do it on a larger scale to prove it works. It should work, and very readily,” said Mike Lloyd, research director for chemical processing at the institute.
Though Kraft said his company can get equipment to the site and begin operations in about six weeks, nothing will happen until liability issues are resolved. Kraft did not know how long that would take.
No one wants to be exposed to lawsuits if the dikes burst or the EPA declares it a Superfund site.
“On something like this, everyone’s concerned about liability,” Kraft said. “It’s been moving glacially.”
— Reporter Kathy Steele contributed to this report. Reporter Neil Johnson can be reached at (352) 544-5214.