Piney Point threat to Tampa Bay Water desalination plant diminishes

Test results ease earlier concerns about contaminants reaching the site in Hillsborough County.
An aerial view of a storage pond at the closed Piney Point fertilizer operation in Palmetto, Manatee County. .
An aerial view of a storage pond at the closed Piney Point fertilizer operation in Palmetto, Manatee County. . [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published April 15, 2021|Updated April 15, 2021

TAMPA — The potential threat to a regional water source from a contamination spill in Manatee County has eased, officials said Thursday, even as the state revealed a continuing leak at the closed Piney Point phosphate plant.

Tom Ash, assistant water division director for the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission, acknowledged early concerns about the discharge flowing north toward Tampa Bay Water’s desalination plant in the Big Bend area.

“We have yet to see any indication of that. We’re not terribly concerned at this point about that,” Ash said Thursday while briefing Hillsborough commissioners sitting as the environmental protection commission.

Last week, Commissioner Harry Cohen, who also sits on the Tampa Bay Water Board, said losing up to 25 million gallons a day of drinking water from the desalination plant, even temporarily, could compromise Hillsborough’s long-term water distribution plans for the fast-growing south county area.

Thursday, the water supply authority echoed Ash’s comments.

“The drinking water Tampa Bay Water provides is safe and will remain safe,” said Chuck Carden, the agency’s interim general manager. “The discharges were well south of the desalination plant. We’re actively monitoring the situation and do not anticipate impacts to the plant at this time.”

The environmental protection commission has added water monitoring stations to its usual 52 collection points in Tampa Bay to check for abnormal levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, salinity and other chemicals. The increased scrutiny from the commission and other agencies comes after a leak in a reservoir at Piney Point in late March.

Related: Hillsborough ponders legal remedies for Piney Point spill

The state allowed 215 million gallons of contaminated water to be discharged to the Port of Manatee channel and on to Tampa Bay over a two-week period ending April 9. The state said 221 million gallons of mixed rain water, salt water and remnants from the former fertilizer plant’s operation remained in the reservoir when the emergency pumping ended.

But Wednesday, the state Department of Environmental Protection said it detected a continued leak in the reservoir on Tuesday afternoon, where a steel plate had been installed as part of the earlier repair. That spill, called a “low-level leak,” has been contained on the premises.

Ash said the top concern for Hillsborough is the potential for concentrated levels of nutrients to seep into the back bay areas of Cockroach Bay and other nearby locales. The nitrogen and other nutrients feed the microorganisms that can result in algae blooms, fish kills or other environmental damage.

Related: DeSantis steering more money to Piney Point

Most of the focus is the area south of Port Manatee, he said, “but we are not discounting any sloshing heading our way into the southern part of Hillsborough County.”

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Both he and Janet Daugherty, executive director of the commission, cautioned that a timeline for a potential end to the environmental affects couldn’t be predicted.

“This process is something that will take months and maybe even years to decipher the impact,” said Daugherty.

Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.