Leak at old phosphate plant could cause discharges into Tampa Bay

Environmental advocates worry about damaging algal blooms.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack complex, far background, at HRK Holdings’ property off Buckeye Road in Palmetto on Tuesday. Wastewater is suspected to be leaking there at the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack complex, far background, at HRK Holdings’ property off Buckeye Road in Palmetto on Tuesday. Wastewater is suspected to be leaking there at the old Piney Point phosphate plant. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published March 30, 2021|Updated April 2, 2021

PALMETTO — Wastewater appears to be leaking at an old phosphate plant in Palmetto, records show, and Florida environmental officials are allowing the company in charge of the property to discharge some of the water to Port Manatee on Tampa Bay to prevent “a potential catastrophic failure.”

The emergency order from the Department of Environmental Protection comes after HRK Holdings, which manages phosphogypsum stacks at the old Piney Point facility, reported last Thursday that it seemed to have a leak at the site, a state spokeswoman said.

Related: Manatee County orders evacuation, fears disaster near phosphate plant

The property holds old byproducts of the fertilizer industry, including what’s known as process water that can contain phosphorus and nitrogen. Piney Point has for years loomed as an environmental risk for Tampa Bay, with rainfall threatening to cause overflows. Manatee County officials in recent months have debated what to do amid warnings from HRK that ponds at the plant are approaching their limits.

“The department’s top priority is ensuring the protection of public safety and health and minimizing any potential environmental impacts,” wrote Weesam Khoury, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in a statement Monday.

Jeff Barath, a manager at HRK Holdings, told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday morning that the problem involves a 77-acre pond containing a mix of seawater from an old dredging project and polluted process water. The apparent leak, he said, has accelerated to the point of possibly destabilizing the storage systems at Piney Point.

Barath did not provide an estimate for how much of the water could be sent offsite. “As little as possible,” he said. He could only speak for a few minutes. “Right now I am doing my best to stabilize the situation.”

Environmental advocates say they worry the water will put nutrients into Tampa Bay that could contribute to damaging algal blooms, bad for marine life. In 2011, water dumped from Piney Point was found to also carry the heavy metal cadmium. The pH level of the water has measured at about 4.6, Barath said, or a bit more acidic than black coffee, according a chart cited online by the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Right now it’s mostly handling a lingering issue that has been ongoing at the facility and trying to not create a bigger issue than what’s currently taking place,” said Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. “I’m very worried if it’s going to be a lot.”

The Port Manatee South Gate entrance, across U.S. 41 from the Eastport Terminal facility at HRK Holdings’ property in Palmetto.
The Port Manatee South Gate entrance, across U.S. 41 from the Eastport Terminal facility at HRK Holdings’ property in Palmetto. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]

The leak could stem from a torn liner in a compartment holding roughly 480 million gallons of the mixed water, according to the Department of Environmental Protection’s emergency order, issued Monday.

“HRK and their third-party engineer have determined their actions are not able to prevent a catastrophic failure without a preventative controlled release,” Khoury wrote in the statement. The company notified state regulators, she said, that it plans to begin discharges to Port Manatee and is telling nearby residents of the plan.

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HRK reported to the state Monday that an unspecified amount of process water is also bypassing its management system and reaching a creek that connects to Tampa Bay, according to Khoury. A public notice of pollution, released Monday afternoon, said: “This is being done in order to keep the integrity of the stack system.”

In the emergency order, the Department of Environmental Protection identified a risk of pressure on the drainage at Piney Point, now called the Eastport Terminal, causing a total failure in dikes and an uncontrolled discharge of water.

“This is a potential environmental disaster if it isn’t handled properly,” U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican, wrote in a tweet.

HRK has also described spotting an upwelling of water, or a boil, at the foot of a gypstack, according to Khoury. A stack is a large pile of phosphogypsum, which is a byproduct of phosphate mining for the fertilizer industry. The stacks — including about two dozen in Florida — are monitored because of levels of radioactivity in the material.

Related: EPA approves use of radioactive phosphogypsum in roads, reversing long-held policy

Several years ago, a sinkhole opened at a phosphate plant in Mulberry, and polluted water poured into it. Khoury said Monday there is no evidence of a sinkhole at Piney Point. Department of Environmental Protection staffers have visited the plant and are investigating the leak.

Manatee County officials are interested in using an underground well to manage the water at Piney Point, according to the Bradenton Herald. The state’s emergency order says HRK is in the process of discharging water, under a permit, to be treated in the county’s publicly-owned system.

Some environmentalists used the news Monday to call for an end to the state’s phosphate industry.

“Florida can’t keep ignoring the catastrophic risks of phosphate mining and its toxic waste products,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “No community should have to suffer the consequence of this toxic legacy for some corporation’s short-term financial gain.”

Glenn Compton, leader of the local environmental group ManaSota-88, questioned HRK’s handling of the site. He worries a total collapse of a dike would lead to a sudden rush of water and “complete annihilation of everything in its path — plant and animal life.”

“There really is no good solution solving the problem of trying to get rid of the wastewater,” Compton said. “It seems anything that can go wrong at Piney Point has gone wrong, and it’s just another sad event that has occurred as a result of mismanagement of the stack.”