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Spill brings $64,600 fine

GATX Terminals Corp. has agreed to pay $64,600 in fines to the state and Hillsborough County in connection with a May 1989 chemical spill that dumped 74,000 gallons of phosphoric acid into Hillsborough Bay.

Last week, GATX, the state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) and the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) came to the agreement over the spill.

GATX agreed to implement new safety measures at its plant near the Port of Tampa. DER officials said the safety measures, which include reconstructing a dam around the chemical holding tanks and conducting a groundwater contamination survey, will bring the plant in line with state regulations.

The plant had been exempt from the regulations because of its age, DER officials said.

In May 1989, 131,549 gallons of a solution containing 53 percent phosphoric acid poured out of a hole in a tank at GATX's port facility, DER officials said. A dam surrounding the acid tank failed, releasing 74,366 gallons of the solution into the bay. The remainder was diverted into an unlined pond.

Shortly afterward, GATX pumped out the pond and disposed of the acid solution.

GATX notified the Coast Guard within two hours of the spill. The company's prompt response helped lessen the fine, DER officials said.

The fines, $50,000 to the state and $14,600 to the county, do not include any compensation for damage to the environment.

County and state officials said they didn't know how much damage the spill caused to the environment, but they said the affected area was not considered environmentally sensitive.

Neither the county nor the state conducted a study to determine how many fish were killed by the acid. A 1989 spill of 40,000 gallons of phosphoric acid at Gardinier Co. killed 7.7-million young fish in the environmentally rich Alafia River, a state study said.

"There's a difference between a natural river system and a dredged shipping canal," said Leslie Schaugaard, enforcement coordinator for the EPC.

County Commissioner Jan Platt said a study should have been conducted immediately after the spill to determine how the spill affected wildlife.

"I think there needs to be an explanation of how this can be treated in a different manner from the Gardinier spill," said Platt, who is also chairwoman of the EPC. "The bay is the bay."

It was the county's responsibility to conduct a study if one was needed, said Henry Dominick of DER. The county was on the site first so it was responsible for leading the investigation, he said.

But Schaugaard said that although the county usually handles investigations into chemical spills, it's up to the state to conduct fish-kill studies.

"The thing about doing environmental damages is that very few people in Hillsborough County are able to do assessments," Schaugaard said.

As part of the settlement, GATX agreed to test the ground near the unlined pond to determine the extent of acid seepage.

That wasn't done in 1989, county officials said. "We don't know the potential for contamination," Schaugaard said. But the spill site is "sitting on the bay," and salt water may have intruded into the layers of sediment beneath the pond, she said.

The salt water could have carried some of the acid into the bay.

Chris Dunn, director of EPC's water management division, said GATX, state and county officials discussed a groundwater contamination study and decided against conducting one.

"If there was any imminent hazard, a study would have been done immediately," Dunn said.