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

The looming environmental disaster is not the Manatee County property’s first.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack, far, background, and water management at HRK Holdings’ property in Palmetto.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack, far, background, and water management at HRK Holdings’ property in Palmetto. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published April 2, 2021|Updated Jan. 31, 2022

The plastic liner that holds wastewater in a roughly 480-million gallon reservoir at the old Piney Point phosphate plant has — much like the property as a whole — had problems before.

Now it could be the cause of an environmental catastrophe in Tampa Bay.

A leak has already led to discharges of at least 25 million gallons of polluted water at Port Manatee. Managers on the site are scrambling to head off what they fear could be a complete collapse, while environmentalists worry the discharges alone could seriously hurt the bay.

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

Regulators believe a tear in the liner might have touched off this cascade.

“The condition of the liner ... is not particularly great,” Mike Kelley, an outside engineer working with the property owner, HRK Holdings, told Manatee County commissioners Thursday. “It’s old. There were some installation issues. There’s a long-documented history of that liner system having problems.”

Over the last year, environmental records show, staff have inspected the liner on multiple occasions and found small holes or weaknesses in plastic seams above the water line. They documented potential cracks last December, October and July, the records show.

Kelley said an underwater seam might have come apart, triggering the leak. Employees are still investigating and have not confirmed the source.

The looming disaster is an episode of history repeating at Piney Point.

Once a manufacturing hub for the fertilizer industry, the property has been the source of polluted discharges in the past. The old plant contains not just wastewater ponds but stacks of phosphogypsum, a material monitored for its radioactivity.

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

Regulators fear those heaps, stout above Florida’s flatlands, could break apart under pressure from leaking water, leading to an uncontrolled discharge. The water being sent into the bay, officials say, holds nutrients like nitrogen and is slightly acidic.

Responsibility for the dangerous waste at Piney Point has been passed around over the decades from a private company, to the state and then back to another private company. All the while, polluted water and phosphogypsum have lingered as a risk to the bay.

Glenn Compton, leader of the environmental advocacy group ManaSota-88, blames a lack of oversight and inadequate investment by property owners.

“Piney Point has been mismanaged for decades,” he said. “This is just the latest saga.”

A manager for HRK Holdings did not answer a call or text message or reply to an email with specific questions about the liner and whether previously discovered cracks in it should have been a red flag. The Department of Environmental Protection did not provide an answer to a similar question Friday morning about whether regulators or the company could have intervened.

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HRK Holdings has of late warned local elected officials that the wastewater reservoirs at the old plant near the Manatee-Hillsborough county line are nearing capacity. Without action, the company has said, the storage systems could become overwhelmed by regular rain — a persistent environmental threat that shadows the present emergency.

“Piney Point is a long story that just needs to end,” Noah Valenstein, the state’s top environmental official, said Thursday. The Department of Environmental Protection, he said, is now committed to doing that.

But first, workers at Piney Point have to end the immediate crisis.

A view of the phosphogypsum stack complex at the old Piney Point plant.
A view of the phosphogypsum stack complex at the old Piney Point plant. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]

Liner issues documented before

The old Piney Point plant holds multiple wastewater ponds.

The one believed to be at the center of this week’s incident, which a manager said is just under 80 acres in size, has been designated as an emergency backup for excess water from another reservoir. But last July, state records show, an engineer brought on by HRK Holdings suggested the company should look for an alternative because the plastic liner was in poor condition.

Citing “significant deterioration of the upper portion of the liner system over the last few years,” the engineer advised against using the pond as a backstop at peak levels because of a “relatively high potential for liner failure and potential release of process water into the gypsum dikes or pond floor.”

Over the last year, according to multiple reports filed with the state, HRK staffers repeatedly inspected the liner and saw cracks, sometimes several inches in length, or other weaknesses they thought could become holes in the future. The breaks were spotted above the water line, up to about 10 feet from the surface.

HRK staffers referred to open cracks, some of which were wide enough to see through, as “critical conditions.” They covered the fissures with water-resistant tape as a temporary patch and vowed to inspect the flaws daily until a more permanent fix, records show.

This screengrab shows a portion of a report filed with the state by HRK Holdings last December, documenting flaws above water in the plastic liner of a pond at the old Piney Point phosphate plant site.
This screengrab shows a portion of a report filed with the state by HRK Holdings last December, documenting flaws above water in the plastic liner of a pond at the old Piney Point phosphate plant site. [ Courtesy of Florida Department of Environmental Protection ]

Charlie Hunsicker, director of Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources, told commissioners on Thursday that the liner system was laid down about 18 years ago and has many seams.

When asked about reports of previous cracking, Valenstein, the state environmental secretary, said the source of the current problem remains unclear, but that regulators should always look for opportunities to improve after an emergency.

“We haven’t discovered the leak in this,” he said. “We do believe it’s a liner tear, but it’s important to see what that is and determine what caused it and is there anything we need to do as a state about that?”

Day-to-day management of the property, he said, ultimately falls to HRK Holdings.

County and state officials are monitoring water quality in Tampa Bay as polluted discharges flow out at Port Manatee. Valenstein said the state will hold HRK to environmental standards for protecting natural resources and to the requirements of its permits.

A record of trouble

Piney Point’s history in Tampa Bay is long and messy. The plant was built in 1966. In the 1990s, the company then in charge, Mulberry Corp., foundered and later closed.

The Department of Environmental Protection, which the Tampa Bay Times reported had ignored concerns about the corporation’s stability and failed to quickly cap the stacks, got stuck managing the property through a court-appointed receiver.

After a tropical storm hit in 2001, pushing ponds to the brim, officials discharged millions of gallons of water, the Times reported. The release reached a nearby harbor. The state got approval a couple of years later to dump treated wastewater from Piney Point off barges far out in the Gulf of Mexico.

HRK Holdings bought the Piney Point land to create what it calls Eastport, “ideally suited” to lease space for storage and manufacturing businesses across from Port Manatee on U.S. 41. The company paid $4.3 million, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which wrote that HRK contributed millions of dollars to the state’s clean-up efforts. The new owners also agreed to take an unwelcome task off Florida’s hands: maintaining the phosphogypsum stacks and wastewater for a cost then estimated at roughly $250,000 a year.

HRK was at the helm in 2011 when a liner tear in the same reservoir led to a release of potentially polluted water.

The Port Manatee South Gate across U.S. 41 from HRK Holdings’ property in Palmetto.
The Port Manatee South Gate across U.S. 41 from HRK Holdings’ property in Palmetto. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]

Past discharges from Piney Point have hit Bishop Harbor, which is part of an aquatic preserve. Seeing that preserve “is like stepping back in time to experience the natural beauty that attracted early settlers to the Tampa Bay area,” the Department of Environmental Protection agency says on its website.

Officials this week are trying to avoid putting water directly in that area, which also contains valuable seagrasses. The emergency order for the release allows HRK Holdings to send wastewater toward Bishop Harbor only as a last resort.

Another aquatic preserve, Cockroach Bay, is not far to the north, past the Hillsborough County line.

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program is collaborating with researchers from the University of South Florida to model where the wastewater might flow after pouring out to Port Manatee, said Ed Sherwood, the group’s director. They fear extra nitrogen in the bay will boost harmful algal blooms.

“Going back to last year we recognized the amount of water they had on site was becoming problematic, and we needed something to be done,” he said.

An HRK official this week told county commissioners “there will likely be impacts in Tampa Bay” from the releases.

With the Sunshine Skyway as a backdrop, pelicans patrol the entrance to Bishop Harbor in 2003.
With the Sunshine Skyway as a backdrop, pelicans patrol the entrance to Bishop Harbor in 2003. [ Times (2003) ]

The next phase

The leak has come at a critical juncture for the old plant property. Manatee County officials are considering options for what to do with the wastewater long-term.

They are interested in building an injection well to pump the water deep underground and are looking for funding.

Some environmental advocates are skeptical of the idea and question how injections will be monitored to ensure no harm comes to the state’s freshwater aquifer. They do not want the same fix to become commonplace at other phosphogypsum stacks, which number about two dozen across the state, according to the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute.

“The solution isn’t to just shove things underground and hope for the best,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nature advocacy group that opposes phosphate mining.

Last July, HRK’s outside engineer explained in a report that there is little time left to do something about Piney Point. The contaminated ponds are almost out of room.

“The site seems to have enough storage to handle average rainfall condition for [the] next two to three years,” the engineer wrote. “However, if there is an extremely wet year with above average rainfall there is a possibility that the available storage may be depleted in less than two years.”

Valenstein, head of the Department of Environmental Protection, said Thursday that the agency will support deep well injections. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican, wrote on Twitter that such a process could take between 3 and 5 years.

Site managers are hurriedly sending away wastewater this week to cut pressure on the phosphogypsum stack system. Jeff Barath, a manager for HRK Holdings, said the water began flowing toward Port Manatee on Tuesday at a rate of about 14.5 million gallons a day. The company hoped to start another siphon to dump the wastewater even more rapidly.

Early signs suggest a possible tear could be near the bottom of the liner, said Kelley, the engineer who spoke to Manatee County commissioners. That could force more days of pumping.

“Which would mean,” he said, “we’re draining the whole thing.”