Water release starts in effort to avoid old Tampa Bay phosphate plant catastrophe

The site’s operator noticed signs of a leak last week. Environmentalists worry about harm to Tampa Bay.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack complex at HRK Holdings’ property in Palmetto on Tuesday.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack complex at HRK Holdings’ property in Palmetto on Tuesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published March 31, 2021|Updated April 2, 2021

The manager of a former phosphate plant property in Palmetto started sending wastewater out to Port Manatee on Tampa Bay on Tuesday afternoon, a record shows, as environmental regulators try to avert a greater disaster.

The water has discharged at an estimated rate of between 10,000 and 13,000 gallons per minute, wrote Weesam Khoury, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, in an email late Wednesday. Over 24 hours, a 10,000 gallon-per-minute rate would amount to more than 14 million gallons. The total amount of wastewater released, however, remains unclear.

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

HRK Holdings, which operates the old Piney Point site, began the discharge at 3:57 p.m. Tuesday, according to a public notice of pollution. The water, which environmentalists worry could damage the bay, reached Port Manatee at 4:15 p.m., the notice says.

“These discharges are operating as anticipated,” Khoury wrote.

HRK Holdings last week detected signs of a leak that threatens to upend a storage system for harmful waste, state records show. The leak, according to a Department of Environmental Protection emergency order, could come from a tear in the lining of a reservoir holding approximately 480 million gallons of water. Officials are still investigating the cause.

Jeff Barath, a manager at HRK Holdings, has said the 77-acre pond holds a mix of seawater from an old dredging project and what’s called process water, a byproduct of phosphate mining for the fertilizer industry that contains nitrogen and phosphorus.

Related: Leak at old phosphate plant could cause discharges into Tampa Bay

A state incident report from Monday indicates that an HRK Holdings representative said “they believe the only threat of this discharge will be ‘nutrient loading’ of the immediate area” as the water reaches lower Tampa Bay. That is what environmental advocates fear.

“Short term I worry about algae blooms and fish kills, and long term I worry about the nitrogen balance in the bay, which is a delicate thing,” said Justin Bloom, a board member of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and Suncoast Waterkeeper, who visited Port Manatee by boat Wednesday.

Regulators have authorized the temporary releases to head off what they warn could be a bigger problem if dikes or berms fail, causing an uncontrolled discharge of water. The site holds phosphogypsum — a leftover material from processing phosphate — that is stored in stacks and monitored because of radioactivity.

“A catastrophic release of mixed seawater, process water and embankment materials from the system could result in personal injury or severe property and environmental damage,” a Department of Environmental Protection official wrote in the emergency order.

In addition to the controlled release, an unspecified amount of water has also flowed from the site and reached a creek that leads to the bay, according to Khoury, the state spokeswoman.

Department of Environmental Protection staff are monitoring the situation at the old Piney Point property. Secretary Noah Valenstein, the agency’s head, is expected to visit Tampa Bay on Thursday and meet with officials and advocates concerned about the leak.

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Brian Rosegger, co-founder of Lost Coast Oyster Company, said he farms oysters a few miles from the port and is worried about what pollution could mean for his company.

“We rely on clean water,” he said. “Nutrient loading like that in any capacity is not going to be sustainable for my business long term.”