Piney Point cleanup, closure might take three years or longer

Shutting down the environmental threat to Tampa Bay is a complicated undertaking.
A drone image shows the Piney Point site in April 2022. Closing the property could take years.
A drone image shows the Piney Point site in April 2022. Closing the property could take years. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 4, 2022|Updated March 4, 2022

It could take until the end of 2024 or longer to shut down Piney Point, the troubled old fertilizer plant property that set off an environmental crisis last spring in Tampa Bay.

A plan released this week shows how complicated the path is for the state to meet its promise of eliminating the lingering environmental threat. Last year, a leak in a reservoir triggered the release of more than 200 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. Packed with nitrogen, the water likely fueled algae growth, scientists say, and may have worsened a toxic Red Tide that killed tons of fish.

Crews at Piney Point still need to drain hundreds of millions of gallons of water from reservoirs, among other tasks. In the meantime, a court-appointed receiver has taken daily control of the site. Workers have spent the last year trying to avoid another major leak or spill while pulling out nutrients from the wastewater so a second discharge, if needed, would hopefully be less harmful to the bay.

Piney Point remains susceptible to problems — tears in the plastic liners for the ponds, heavy rains or tropical cyclones pushing up water levels — that make it a continuing danger. The proposed plan, filed by engineers working for a consultant, Ardaman & Associates, Inc., suggests the closure should be completed by December 2024, according to the receiver, Herb Donica.

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

A major step could take place this fall, when a 3,300-foot injection well being drilled in Manatee County might be ready to begin pumping wastewater underground, Donica wrote in an email. From then on, the amount of wastewater held at the site would drop. The well is expected to start running in October or November, according to the report — or roughly the end of another hurricane season.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the plan “to ensure it meets all regulatory requirements,” spokesperson Alexandra Kuchta wrote in an email. The agency will decide whether to approve the concept.

Earlier this year, Donica, a Tampa lawyer, estimated it may take 4 to 5 years to close Piney Point, according to a status report filed in court records. On Thursday, he said the closure plan was scheduled to wrap up by July 2025, but late Friday he shared that the timeline had been moved up by about six months.

Related: Florida sues Piney Point owner over polluted Tampa Bay discharge

The property near the Hillsborough-Manatee county line was once home to a plant where companies broke down phosphate rock to make fertilizer. That left a byproduct, phosphogypsum, which was piled in high mounds called stacks. Phosphogypsum is radioactive, not so much that people cannot work or walk around it, but enough that the Environmental Protection Agency does not allow almost anything to be done with it in the U.S. other than storing it in towering piles.

At Piney Point, the stacks surround large wastewater reservoirs. Last March, the site’s owner, a company called HRK Holdings, detected signs of a leak in one reservoir. That pond contains a mix of contaminated water from the manufacturing process, seawater from a dredging project at Port Manatee and rainwater, according to the state. A plastic liner for it tore.

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Fearing that pressure from the leak would cause the entire stack to collapse, unleashing a destructive flood into surrounding homes and businesses, Florida’s environmental regulators allowed HRK Holdings to release about 215 million gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay through the neighboring port.

Related: With Tampa Bay in grip of Red Tide, shrimpers turn their nets toward death

The state said as of Thursday, the pond that leaked previously held about 262 million gallons of water. On Jan. 1, according to the engineers’ plan, the whole system contained roughly 400 million gallons of water. The injection well could pump about 1 million gallons a day, according to the plan.

Already, some water from Piney Point is being piped to a local reclamation facility. Other water is being sent through a system to coax evaporation. Donica and employees at the property are trying to keep the ponds below capacity as another rainy season approaches. Before the discharge last year, HRK Holdings had warned that the reservoirs were nearing their limits.

The latest emergency echoed past problems at Piney Point, which has been the source of multiple polluted discharges in recent decades. Florida lawmakers last year supported a budget with $100 million set aside to clean and close the property.

The Department of Environmental Protection has sued HRK Holdings, hoping to recoup expenses. It is not yet clear how much closure will cost.

The state environmental agency, in announcing it had received the plan Wednesday, declared it is “laser-focused on closure of this facility so that the potential threat to (the) environment and surrounding community is eliminated permanently.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect a new timeline for Piney Point’s closure given by the receiver.