PLANT CITY – Call it catastrophic deja vu.
Four years ago, state regulators faced an unprecedented crisis when millions of gallons of toxic wastewater threatened to burst through the berms of an abandoned phosphate plant at Piney Point.
In March, when Coronet Industries ceased operations, they were confronted again with brimming ponds contaminated with cadmium, arsenic, fluoride, radium and other toxins.
The tale of the two potential disasters sheds light on the precarious line regulators must tread and the choices and compromises that can affect the quality of life for generations.
With hurricane season and the rains of summer on the horizon, the state Department of Environmental Protection in each case authorized the emergency disposal of partially treated wastewater into local waterways to avert a catastrophic spill.
Calling the releases “the lesser of two evils,” the state agency lowered the bar for water quality standards.
It was supposed to be a temporary measure: Once the crisis was past, any discharges would be expected to meet permitted water quality standards, said Fred Nassar, wastewater compliance manager for the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
But the county agency doesn’t decide when the emergency is over – the state DEP does.
In the case of Coronet, the state agency didn’t declare the crisis over until Jan. 13, after nearly 800 million gallons of partially treated wastewater flowed from the shuttered plant site into English Creek – a tributary to the Alafia River.
The Coronet ponds, at that point, had been reduced to little more than puddles. Even then, the DEP did not necessarily consider the emergency to be over.
“If we had not seen impacts starting to occur in the creek, we might have allowed the company to continue discharging [under the emergency order] to reduce pond levels as much as possible before the rains begin again,” said Deborah Getzoff, director of the DEP’s Southwest District Office.
Fluoride and nutrient levels spiked during December, and microscopic organisms that serve as a measure of water quality began to disappear.
The effects on English Creek were subtle but profound, said Linda Young, Florida coordinator for the Clean Water Network, a national environmental group.
“It’s never OK to take polluted wastewater and dump it into our rivers when you don’t have to,” Young said. “And I don’t see any evidence that they had to after the rains stopped and the pond levels went down.”
In the case of Piney Point, the DEP cut back on discharges and instituted a higher level of water treatment when Bishops Harbor began to show the effects of the partially treated phosphate effluent.
More than 300 million gallons of nutrient-rich wastewater were discharged into the fragile harbor near Port Manatee, where fish-killing algae began to bloom at an alarming rate.
An additional 250 million gallons was barged and released into the Gulf of Mexico, amid protests from residents, fishermen and environmental groups.
Although wastewater from Piney Point and Coronet was the result of processing phosphate, the treatment parameters differed in many respects, environmental officials said.
At Coronet, “the level of nutrients are dramatically less,” said Nassar, of the county Environmental Protection Commission.
Much of the Piney Point wastewater was double-limed, a more advanced treatment than the single-stage lime method used at Coronet.
“Lime is kind of like the duct tape of the emergency world,” said Rick Jardine, an on-site coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It can right a lot of wrongs.”
Lime neutralizes the acid and causes a chemical reaction that allows toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead to “settle out” into sediment and sludge.
“It’s better than being in the water column, where it could affect aquatic life,” Jardine said.
Coronet also added ferric chloride to remove more contaminants.
The second-stage liming at Piney Point produced a higher level of treatment. But lime could do little to remove the nutrients that fueled the algae growth and prompted the DEP to look for alternatives.
Millions of gallons of Piney Point wastewater were trucked to municipal water treatment plants and nearby phosphate operations when heavy rains threatened to breach the berms.
Reverse osmosis filtration – an expensive and time- consuming treatment that produces highly treated effluent – also was used to resume discharges to the harbor.
“Have they looked at all these alternatives for Coronet?” asked St. Petersburg- based environmental lawyer Tom Reese.
Reverse osmosis was an option that was considered, said DEP spokeswoman Merritt Mitchell. In the end, the lime treatment prevailed.
“Given the time-critical situation for water removal, it allowed the greatest amount of water to be moved from the site,” she said. “The system was constantly being tweaked, and multiple improvements were being made along the way.”
Payments, Politics And Pressure
Reese suggests the different approach at the two phosphate plants also might have to do with the publicity and political pressure that surrounded Piney Point and the high profile of Bishops Harbor – a popular sport-fishing destination, as well as a prized ecosystem closely monitored by numerous agencies.
“At Piney Point, you’ve got the Agency for Bay Management, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and other scientists looking at it,” Reese said.
Then, too, the state was footing the bill at Piney Point, turning to the phosphate severance tax fund when the plant’s owner, Mulberry Phosphates, went bankrupt.
At Coronet, the company is paying the bills.
“The amount of treatment does, a lot of times, depend on who’s paying for it,” Reese said.
Not from the DEP’s perspective, Mitchell said.
Coronet spokesman Tom Stewart said “a number of factors” went into the technology that Coronet chose.
Those included the treatment system’s capacity, the reliability and cost, he said.
There is another key difference between Coronet and Piney Point, he said. “Those guys walked away, but we’re still here working to meet our responsibilities.”
Although Piney Point’s drama unfolded in the glare of public scrutiny, the discharge of Coronet’s wastewater has been overshadowed by an ongoing state and federal investigation into health complaints from people in the surrounding community.
Residents have filed suit, blaming the century-old phosphate processor for damaging their health.
Their attorneys also claimed the company was disposing of evidence by removing the wastewater before their experts can test it for contamination.
Company officials said they were trying to comply with the DEP’s regulatory orders.
On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Vivian Maye found “no competent and substantial evidence” to support the allegations and dissolved an injunction she granted Jan. 27. The injunction prohibited further disposal of contaminated water, soil or sediment from the Coronet site.
The DEP ordered Coronet to begin liming and discharging 200 million gallons of wastewater from the shuttered plant site in May, before the start of the rainy season.
Then came hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne.
The ponds were brimming once again. More water to dispose of and monitor. However, there also was more water to dilute the wastewater.
“It cut both ways,” said Getzoff, noting that the company twice had to discharge effluent that didn’t meet even the lower thresholds for water quality when two hurricanes blew through.
On Oct. 1, the DEP issued an amended order calling for more discharges. The company released about 5 million gallons a day through mid-January, according to Mitchell.
“Right about the time Coronet had to crank out the discharges, you started to see a sharp rise in fluoride at Highway 60 and English Creek,” Nassar said.
Nutrient levels spiked, as well, but that and other effects on the creek were expected under the circumstances, Nassar said.
“They gave them a pretty lenient toxicity criteria to meet,” he said.
Getzoff said the DEP tried to strike a balance between what the company reasonably could achieve under the circumstances and what effects reasonably could be expected on the creek.
“Based on that, we believe we struck an appropriate balance,” she said.
Nassar said English Creek and its inhabitants will bounce back in time.
“The environmental harm down the road is probably going to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things,” said Nassar, assuming the discharges no longer will be necessary.
“As far as the potential for these ponds to fill up and create another crisis situation, they look like they’re in pretty good shape right now,” Nassar said.
But the DEP expects the discharges to resume, especially in light of predictions for a wet El Nino spring.
Last spring, the agency estimated nearly 1 billion gallons of wastewater were contained on the Coronet site. About 80 million gallons remain, according to Coronet attorneys.
“Our experts advise us that continuation of water reduction at the site is critical to ensuring we’ll have the time necessary to treat the water to the highest level prior to discharge,” Mitchell said.
Getzoff said she hopes for a higher level of water quality than that produced by liming for future discharges.
“We would like to see the company come up with a better treatment,” she said.
Meanwhile, the contaminants removed from the wastewater before it was released have settled into the sediment and sludge at the bottom of the near-empty ponds.
Arsenic, cadmium, fluoride, radium and a host of other enduring toxic elements wait for regulators and the company to settle upon a final closure plan.
There is no set timetable, Getzoff said. “Certainly, the sooner the better.”
Researcher Buddy Jaudon contributed to this report. Reporter Jan Hollingsworth can be reached at (813) 754-3765.