PALMETTO — The expected rainfall from Hurricane Ian will raise water levels at Piney Point, an abandoned former phosphate plant in Manatee County, but site officials say they are prepared for the storm.
Contract workers began preparing last week, tying down equipment and clean-up materials. They’ve also pumped water from the phosphate stacks with the highest levels of water to make room for heavy rain.
“We’re in good shape,” said Herb Donica, the court appointed receiver who is in charge of the management of the site and controls state money allocated for its cleanup. “We have nailed everything down that looks like it might want to move.”
Pumps and generators have been placed around the property in case of a water surge. Since taking over the site, the volume of water has been reduced by some 55 million gallons, leaving plenty of capacity, Donica said.
“We can accept several inches of (rain) if we have to,” he said. “The worst case prediction is within our ability to handle. At this point I don’t suspect any surprises.”
Piney Point has been an environmental headache since it was abandoned in 2001. Located close to Port Manatee on the east side of U.S. Hwy. 41, its high, grassy flanks are part of stacks, some seven stories high, built from phosphogypsum, or gypsum for short. The substance is a radioactive byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing.
By 2003, its stacks were full of millions of gallons of polluted water that had to be treated, loaded onto barges and dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.
Plastic liners were installed over the stacks as part of a plan approved in 2006 to try and convert the site into a storage facility. But the liners tore soon after the site began storing dredge materials. The Department of Environmental Protection, fearing the leak would disrupt the gypsum stacks, issued an emergency order letting crews send about 170 million gallons of potentially contaminated water toward Tampa Bay.
The final straw came in 2021 when the property sprang another leak — leading to the release of 215 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay and the evacuation of more than 300 homes.
The dumped water includes nitrogen, which scientists say may have led to contamination that fed a toxic Red Tide bloom that killed hundreds of tons of marine life in the bay and off the nearby Gulf beaches.
Florida lawmakers in 2021 allocated $81 million to close the site. The state that year also sued site owner HRK Holdings, a company formed by Wall Street investors, in an effort to recoup cleanup costs leading a Manatee circuit judge to appoint Donica to take control of the property.
Donica’s focus has been on reducing the amount of contaminated water at the site.
Some 100,000 gallons a day are typically piped to a Manatee County water treatment plant. Spray-heads are also used on one stack to spray water into the air where it evaporates.
Another stack uses a 4-inch pipe with holes that runs around the top of another stack to enable evaporation.
Construction is also underway on a deep-well injection system.
The cleanup is being overseen by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. State officials were checking the progress of storm preparation almost hourly through phone calls and texts, Donica said.
“We use everything but smoke signals,” he said. “If we lose power and cell, we have radios.”
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2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
ROAD CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads as Hurricane Ian approaches.
HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT THE HURRICANE: A school mental health expert says to let them know what’s happening, keep a routine and stay calm.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SHELTER: What to bring — and not bring — plus information on pets, keeping it civil and more.
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
SAFEGUARD YOUR HOME: Storms and property damage go hand in hand. Here’s how to prepare.
IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.
RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.
DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits
PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.
SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.
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Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change
PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.
PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.
PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?
INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.