Florida says another Piney Point wastewater release is possible

If that happens, the Department of Environmental Protection says the discharge should be less contaminated.
An overhead image shows the Piney Point site in April.
An overhead image shows the Piney Point site in April. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Aug. 19, 2021|Updated Aug. 19, 2021

More wastewater from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site might be released into Tampa Bay if rain pushes reservoirs to the brink of capacity.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the water would be dumped to avert further catastrophe at the property — the same rationale the state gave when it allowed the owner to release 215 million gallons of wastewater into the bay this spring. Officials said they wanted to avoid a collapse at Piney Point spewing a flood into the area surrounding the Manatee County site.

But the agency says if there is a next time, the discharge should not be as polluted. Contractors have been treating water at Piney Point, according to the state, reducing the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that could end up in the bay.

The Tampa Bay Times this week asked the agency to explain its plans for a possible release as well as what has been done to treat and manage polluted water since the April discharge. The state has not answered several of the Times’ questions directly, but did release more information in an updated document with frequently asked questions about the Piney Point situation.

“As a result of ongoing efforts by DEP, the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Manatee County and other state and federal partners, we are in a significantly better place today than we were at that time,” the agency said in the undated document, which was emailed to the Times on Wednesday.

Since the first discharge, Tampa Bay has experienced a historically bad Red Tide bloom that scientists say could have been exacerbated by pollution from Piney Point.

Related: Florida fears rain, hurricanes could cause Piney Point pollution to overflow

It is not clear how much water could be released in the future, but the state said pumping would stop as soon as the site’s reservoirs were within a safe level.

A contracting database shows the Department of Environmental Protection has paid at least $9.8 million to two water treatment companies. Those are: NClear, Inc. and Phosphorus Free Water Solutions. Neither company responded to attempts to seek comment.

NClear says online it uses a chemical compound and “electrochemical technology” to reduce nutrients in water. The company also describes working on a pilot project at Piney Point in 2017. Phosphorus Free Water Solutions says on its website that it filters water and uses porous ceramic along with bacteria to convert nitrogen into a non-harmful gas.

The state says the treatments will lower nutrient levels between 97 and 99 percent. The large release earlier this year is estimated to have injected a year’s worth of nitrogen into Lower Tampa Bay in about 10 days.

“This treatment will help minimize potential environmental impacts,” the state said.

Related: Failure at Piney Point: Florida let environmental risk fester despite warnings

Beyond treatment, the Department of Environmental Protection says the property’s owner, HRK Holdings, has also been discharging stormwater from the site, while “daily trucking of water to nearby water treatment facilities has resumed.”

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Trucks are toting the water to the Manatee County Southeast Water Reclamation Facility, a state spokesperson said. As of late Thursday, they had carried 136,500 gallons of water. The reservoir central to problems this spring held 266 million gallons.

The Department of Environmental Protection revealed this month that it fears more rainfall and the continuing hurricane season could cause Piney Point’s reservoirs to overflow when it asked a Manatee circuit judge for an emergency hearing on appointing an independent receiver to manage Piney Point.

The state believes the receiver would quicken the process of draining water before more problems emerge. It is also suing HRK Holdings for damages and to cap the ponds for good.

The property has gotten about 24 inches of rain since the beginning of June, and can hold another 10.5 inches — close to the same amount that, on average, would be expected to fall between now and the end of September, according to the state. Water levels will fluctuate depending on weather and efforts to lower the ponds each day.

Related: Florida is suing Piney Point’s owners. Is the state also to blame?

The old plant site contains hulking stacks of phosphogypsum, a radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer industry. Large reservoirs sit within the stacks, surrounded by a plastic liner.

The liner apparently tore earlier this year, triggering a leak that officials worried would set off a collapse. The tear was patched with a steel plate, but state records show an engineering firm recently called the fix “imperfect” and recommended the pond’s levels be kept lower than before the leak.

The same engineering firm, in a presentation to the Department of Environmental Protection dated Aug. 4, outlined scenarios under which average or heavy rains could overload Piney Point. To keep the site within capacity, the engineers described several options, including discharging more than 200 million gallons of treated wastewater.

In the updated Piney Point document, entitled “Response and Status Update,” the Department of Environmental Protection says:

“Treated discharges will only occur if necessary. DEP is carefully monitoring site conditions and current and future weather predictions. ... All other options to manage water onsite are being pursued in an attempt to minimize future treated discharges.”