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To spare bay, state may dump in gulf

Hoping to avert an environmental catastrophe, state officials want to take the unprecedented step of removing millions of gallons of polluted water from an aging phosphate plant and dumping it into the Gulf of Mexico.

The treated wastewater would be loaded into large barges, then dribbled into the gulf.

The dumping could begin as close as 50 miles off St. Pete Beach, a top official of Gov. Jeb Bush's administration told state legislators on Friday.

State officials say they would remove most of the pollution from the water and it would not threaten people or marine creatures.

But federal officials want more evidence before they grant Florida's request for a little-used emergency permit for ocean dumping.

A top state environmental official called it a last-ditch solution to a "rapidly deteriorating situation."

A reservoir of polluted water in a giant earthen mound is in danger of spilling into Tampa Bay at the former Piney Point phosphate plant at Port Manatee.

Heavy rains over the last two years have filled it so high that it could burst in a hurricane, state regulators say, and flood a main evacuation route: U.S. 41.

A spill into nearby Bishop's Harbor, just south of the Sunshine Skyway bridge, could be disastrous. In 1997, a spill from a similar plant wiped out marine life in a 30-mile stretch of the Alafia River.

"If we have a failure of the dike system . . . pretty much anything it comes in contact with would be killed in that part of Tampa Bay," said Allan Bedwell, deputy secretary for regulatory programs at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the state's request.

The state would build a pipeline to Port Manatee. As much as 700-million gallons of treated water would be pumped through the pipeline and into old petroleum tanks, then onto barges.

One plan would dump the waste from ships in a 15-square-mile area 50 miles off St. Pete Beach. The other plan would dribble the waste continuously between Florida and New Orleans.

The U.S. State Department is also involved because maritime laws require the federal government to notify affected countries, such as Mexico, said Carl Terry, an EPA spokesman in Atlanta.

"We are out of options to protect Tampa Bay," the DEP's Bedwell told a committee at the state Legislature Friday. "We are proposing ocean disposal as a last resort. We are doing it reluctantly."

Bedwell said permission for this type of emergency ocean dumping has been granted only twice before, once in Antarctica and once in Puerto Rico. EPA officials could not confirm that.

The state ended up with the problem when Mulberry Phosphate went bankrupt two years ago, giving DEP just 48 hours notice before it abandoned its two giant facilities _ one at Piney Point and one in Mulberry.

The state relied on paperwork to prove the company was financially solvent. Now, the DEP's Bedwell said, the state wants more stringent controls to make sure this never happens again. Florida has at least 18 other phosphate stacks.

The state already has spent millions trying to deal with the mess, and the tab could climb to $160-million by the time the cleanup is finished.

That would more than wipe out a special state fund that is supposed to be available for cleanup at all Florida phosphate stacks, which contain radioactivity and other pollutants.

State lawmakers now are being asked to raise a tax on phosphate to replenish the cleanup fund. That's a politically difficult request in a year when many in the Republican-led Legislature loudly oppose tax hikes.

"This is one project we've got to say: It's got to get done," said Rep. Ron Greenstein, a Democrat from Coconut Creek. "This is of statewide importance."

Rep. Jerry Paul, R-Port Charlotte, said the state is "faced with the decision of releasing treated fluid in the gulf, compared with the risk of untreated fluid being disposed in the bay."

When the water started rising at Piney Point during the past two years, state officials scrambled to find ways to dispose of it.

They trucked it to wastewater treatment plants in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, as well as to other phosphate plants. But during rainy weather, nobody wants extra water.

They considered pumping it underground, incinerating it and putting it in lined landfills. Some of the options didn't get rid of enough water. Some were going to take too long.

Meanwhile, the phosphate waste mountain is already developing holes.

"They did a very poor job of construction," the DEP's Bedwell said of Mulberry Phosphate.

Construction crews hired by the state built the stacks up higher to keep the water in. But rains _ starting with a 9-inch downpour during Tropical Storm Gabrielle in 2001 and ending with more than 16 inches in December 2002 _ wiped out all the progress, Bedwell said.

The DEP drew criticism when it started releasing treated _ but still polluted _ water into Bishop's Harbor, a water body it is sworn to protect. State officials said they had no choice. If they didn't treat the water and get rid of it, they risked a worse catastrophe: untreated, highly acidic water bursting from the stacks.

"It's like the Grand Canyon, only filled with acidic process water," Bedwell told the legislative committee Friday. "In order to protect Tampa Bay, we really need to get this off site."

Tom Reese, a St. Petersburg environmental lawyer who has been a frequent critic of the phosphate industry, called the move "the best plan if it is dumped offshore in the area EPA is identifying. It will allow the stacks to be closed faster, and with less damage."

Suzanne Cooper of the Agency on Bay Management, an arm of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, agreed.

"DEP has done everything they can to get that stack closed," she said. "Bishop's Harbor can't continue to take this."