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Piney Point from 1966-present: On the edge of disaster

The phosphate processing plant that prompted emergency dumping of wastewater and evacuations has been an environmental threat to Tampa Bay for more than two decades.
This aerial photo taken from an airplane shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine, Saturday, April 3, 2021 in Bradenton, Fla. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday after a significant leak at a large pond of wastewater threatened to flood roads and burst a system that stores polluted waters. The pond where the leak was discovered is at the old Piney Point phosphate mine, sitting in a stack of phosphogypsum, a waste product from manufacturing fertilizer that is radioactive. (Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald via AP)
This aerial photo taken from an airplane shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine, Saturday, April 3, 2021 in Bradenton, Fla. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday after a significant leak at a large pond of wastewater threatened to flood roads and burst a system that stores polluted waters. The pond where the leak was discovered is at the old Piney Point phosphate mine, sitting in a stack of phosphogypsum, a waste product from manufacturing fertilizer that is radioactive. (Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald via AP) [ TIFFANY TOMPKINS | AP ]
Published Apr. 6
Updated Apr. 24

Officials fear that a breach of a reservoir wall at Piney Point in Manatee County could lead it to collapse, releasing a wall of hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater. The emergency dumping of wastewater authorized by the state is just the latest in a long checkered history of environmental and financial failures of the disused phosphate plant located just half a mile from Tampa Bay.

1966: The Borden Chemical Company builds the Piney Point phosphate processing plant. It was the first of five owners, several of which were caught dumping waste into nearby Bishop Harbor, a marine estuary that flows into Tampa Bay, and releasing toxic gas into the air.

1989: While under the control of Royster Phosphates, Piney Point releases a cloud of toxic fumes, forcing the evacuation of Port Manatee, the county stockade and about 400 residents.

1993: French investor Judas Azuelos purchases Piney Point and a sister plant in Polk County as Mulberry Corporation for $13 million, assuming millions more in liabilities.

1994: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection fines Piney Point $135,000 for letting water from the phosphogypsum ponds leak into underground water. By 1997, the state had reduced the penalty to $12,000. Phosphogypsum is the byproduct of the production of fertilizer from phosphate rock.

1995: State employees note that Piney Point’s owners are likely to flunk a new financial test for phosphogypsum stack owners. The company repeatedly delays submitting documents, with no penalty.

1997: Heavy rains cause a dam break at the sister plant in Polk County. Waste flowing into the Alafia River causes a massive fish kill. Meanwhile, Piney Point struggles with high water.

1998: Piney Point persuades the state to allow emergency dumping of wastewater into Bishop Harbor.

Jan. 2000: The Mulberry Corporation notifies creditors of financial problems and a plant shutdown.

April 2000: Mulberry files unaudited financial reports. The state does not object for eight months.

Dec. 4, 2000: The state notifies Piney Point owners that their permit renewal will be denied, partly because of its failure to submit audited financial reports.

Dec. 20, 2000: State inspector discovers Piney Point is on the verge of having its power shut off for failure to pay its electric bills.

Jan. 28, 2001: Piney Point owners notify state regulators that their financial woes prevent them from providing environmental security for phosphogypsum stacks in Manatee and Polk counties. Within 48 hours, the company abandons the plants. One week later, Mulberry files for bankruptcy.

Feb. 7, 2001: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency takes over the Piney Point and Polk County plants, replaced two weeks later by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

A 2003 aerial of Piney Point Plant taken as federal officials considered whether to award a permit to dump acidic water into the Gulf of Mexico.
A 2003 aerial of Piney Point Plant taken as federal officials considered whether to award a permit to dump acidic water into the Gulf of Mexico. [ HO ]

Sept. 14, 2001: Tropical Storm Gabrielle dumps more than 18 inches of rain on the area, filling the Piney Point ponds.

Oct. 16, 2001: State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs signs an emergency order allowing dumping of Piney Point water into Bishop Harbor.

Nov. 21, 2001: The state halts pumping after a 10-million gallon release when Tampa Bay area officials question water quality, lack of notification.

July 2002: The state tries reverse osmosis to treat the waste, but problems occur, and questions arise about the byproduct.

July 25, 2002: The Cargill company takes over cleanup at the former Mulberry plant in Polk County. The state will pay Cargill $25 million for the cleanup.

November 2002: The state begins an effort to close the Piney Point ponds permanently.

Dec. 31, 2002: A New Year’s Eve storm drops 16.5 inches of rain on the area. The state suspends the closure effort and the ponds fill back up.

February 2003: The state formally asks EPA for emergency permission to dump wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico.

March 2003: State officials find algae blooms in Bishop Harbor, but continue discharging treated wastewater there.

April 3, 2003: EPA Administrator Christine Whitman approves the gulf dumping permit.

June 27, 2003: The state signs a contract with the H&H company of New York to carry Piney Point waste to the gulf.

February 2004: A combination of warm weather and nutrients from water being dumped from Piney Point leads to algae blooms in Bishop Harbor, creating a risk of fish kills. The state responds by reducing the amount of water coming out, which lowers nitrogen levels by one-third, but says dumping must continue.

January 2006: Manatee County commissioners decline chance to pay $4 million for the 600-acre Piney Point phosphate plant, saying the site was so polluted, it wasn’t worth even that low price.

September 2006: HRK Holdings LLC purchases the former Piney Point phosphate complex for $4.3 million. It also agrees to pay the state $3.8 million toward cleanup and to take on long-term maintenance, estimated at $15 million over the next 50 years. The firm planned to use the site for storage and warehouses for customers of nearby Port Manatee.

April 2007: For the first time in four years, the state stopped dumping wastewater from the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant into Tampa Bay. In all, 1.1 billion gallons of water laden with nitrogen and ammonia had been discharged into Bishop Harbor.

April 2011: HRK begins storing dredge materials pumped from its construction of a new Port Manatee berth into one of the ponds at Piney Point, according to a Bradenton Herald report. A total of 1.5 million cubic yards of dredge material must be removed to make room for a “Panamax”-sized ship that can carry 52,500 tons.

May 2011: A tear in the liner on a gypsum stack led to an ““an imminent threat” of a “catastrophic release of large amounts of seawater and embankment material,” state officials said. They issued an emergency order allowing HRK to dump what it said was mostly seawater from the dredging operation. Roughly 170 million gallons of wastewater was dumped from the site through an emergency order.

June 2012: HRK files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing expenses it incurred addressing the tear in the lining a year earlier. It also was facing claims for damages from the Manatee County Port Authority for months of delays in its $200 million dredging project, according to a Bradenton Herald report.

May 2014: Manatee County considers approving construction of a deep-injection well at Piney Point to pump treated water into the ground and drain the ponds. The plan never advanced.

February 2021: HRK officials brief Manatee commissioners about rising water levels at Piney Point, which had room for just 10 more inches of rain. “All stakeholders must work together quickly to address challenges,” its presentation document states.

March 25, 2021: Site operators spot a leak in the southeast corner of the largest pond at Piney Point. It holds roughly 480 million gallons of wastewater.

Nearly 2,700 gallons a minute of dredging material is released from Piney Point after a tear was detected in the lining of a pond in 2011. In all, roughly 170 million gallons were released.
Nearly 2,700 gallons a minute of dredging material is released from Piney Point after a tear was detected in the lining of a pond in 2011. In all, roughly 170 million gallons were released. [ JIM FARQUHAR | Tampa Bay Times ]

March 29, 2021: The state authorizes release of more than 400 million gallons of wastewater from the pond to prevent “a containment failure and catastrophic release.” The water is slightly acidic and has high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Related: Evacuations expand as Manatee phosphate plant collapse ‘imminent’

April 2, 2021: Fearing a collapse of the pond walls, Manatee County issues an evacuation order covering a mostly industrial area around the plant that includes up to 20 homes.

April 3, 2021: Gov. Ron DeSantis declares a state of emergency for Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Officials fear the collapse of pond walls is “imminent.” Front-end loaders, excavators and dump trucks are deployed to pile dirt over the breach. The evacuation zone is expanded to cover about 315 homes.

April 5, 2021: Footage from an infrared drone suggests a second potential breach in the pond wall, Manatee County officials say. Pond still holds nearly 300 million gallons of wastewater.