Collapse a ‘real possibility’ at old phosphate plant on Tampa Bay, engineer says

Manager says ‘there will likely be impacts in Tampa Bay’ from wastewater releases.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack at HRK Holdings’ property off U.S. 41 in Palmetto.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack at HRK Holdings’ property off U.S. 41 in Palmetto. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published April 1, 2021|Updated April 2, 2021

A leak continues to threaten disaster at an old phosphate plant in Palmetto, with an engineer telling Manatee County commissioners on Thursday that it’s vital for operators to keep discharging thousands of gallons of wastewater to Tampa Bay every minute.

“It is a very critical condition,” said Mike Kelley, an outside engineer who works with the site’s operator, HRK Holdings. “Uncontrolled release is a real possibility at this stage. Getting the water off the stack is imperative.”

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

The site off U.S. 41 contains stacks of phosphogypsum — a material regulated for its radioactivity — and reservoirs of polluted water. The company in charge of the property detected signs of a leak last week.

Officials believe the leak could come from a tear in the liner of a roughly 480-million gallon pond filled with a mixture of seawater from an old dredging project, rainwater and a polluted byproduct of the fertilizer industry that can carry phosphorus and nitrogen. State environmental regulators fear the phosphogypsum stacks will collapse, triggering a rush of water and potentially harmful waste. To ease pressure, they are allowing HRK Holdings to discharge wastewater from the pond to nearby Port Manatee.

About 25 million gallons had been released as of Thursday morning, according to Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein. Environmentalists worry nutrients in those discharges will spur harmful algal blooms and fish kills in the bay.

Related: Plastic liner known to be in poor shape before Piney Point leak, records show

HRK Holdings has been sending away water using one siphon at a rate of about 14.5 million gallons per day, said Jeff Barath, a manager for the company, in an appearance before Manatee County commissioners Thursday. Officials hope to soon add a second siphon to dump water even faster. The release began Tuesday afternoon.

“There will likely be impacts in Tampa Bay,” Barath said. He stifled tears behind a lectern. “This is my community, too. And we are doing everything possible to prevent a true catastrophe, which would be the failure of that stack system.”

A malfunction Thursday afternoon caused officials to temporarily halt the discharge, he said. Barath told commissioners he hoped to resolve the issue within a few hours.

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

Kelley, the engineer, said employees still have not found the source of the leak. If a tear is in the bottom of the lining, as some early signs indicate, he said, the whole store of water might need to be drained. If the stacks were to collapse at Piney Point, Kelley said, the uncontrolled discharge could damage U.S. 41 and several neighboring warehouses.

Employees are working non-stop to prevent that, Barath said, sharing that he has barely slept in the last week.

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“This is very unfortunate,” he told the commissioners. “I am very sorry.”

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

Department of Environmental Protection staffers are also staying in Palmetto to oversee the response, Valenstein said.

Fish, he said, live in the reservoir that appears to be at the center of the leak. But algal blooms fueled by the added nutrients in the bay are a concern. It is too early to tell what might happen, the secretary said, though state and local environmental officials are monitoring the water in several locations across the estuary.

“It’s not something we want to see ever,” Valenstein said.

The old phosphate plant has been a persistent environmental risk for Tampa Bay, with multiple releases since its former owner went belly-up a couple of decades ago. The state managed the site for years before HRK Holdings took over.

Related: BENDING THE RULES AT PINEY POINT // A $140-million mess

Justin Bloom, a board member at Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, said he was among several environmentalists and county officials who met with Valenstein on Thursday.

“Right now this is a really dangerous touch-and-go situation,” Bloom said. “When we get over this immediate danger, we really need to take a look at making sure that this site is safely closed forever.”

Manatee County commissioners are exploring building a deep well to inject the wastewater underground. Valenstein said Thursday he backs that idea and his agency could provide support with grant funding.