Florida regulators have approved a plan to remove hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater from the site of the old fertilizer plant at Piney Point.
The goal, the Department of Environmental Protection said, is to shut down the looming environmental menace to Tampa Bay. Piney Point was the source of 215 million gallons of wastewater dumped into the bay last spring.
“Today, as a result of ongoing efforts on the part of DEP, Manatee County and the court-appointed receiver, we are in a significantly better place than we were then, and this approval marks a key milestone in ensuring this is the last chapter in the long history of Piney Point,” said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Shawn Hamilton in a statement.
There is still no estimate for how much it will cost to close Piney Point. State lawmakers last year agreed to dedicate up to $100 million to the project. The work could be finished as early as December 2024.
The plan is designed to eliminate the danger posed by wastewater stored on the site. The water is a mix of polluted byproducts from fertilizer manufacturing and additional water that became contaminated when it touched that waste.
If successful, workers will drain the enormous reservoirs, treat the water, then pump it down a 3,300-foot well across the street on land owned by Manatee County.
After the ponds are emptied, crews will cover them with plastic liners and soil. That should keep future rainfall from becoming polluted and adding to waste stored onsite. Instead, the rainfall will drain away like stormwater.
The Piney Point property is dominated by phosphogypsum stacks, which cover hundreds of acres and are built from of a chalky byproduct of fertilizer production. The gypsum contains concentrated levels of radioactivity, which the federal government has deemed okay to live near — but not safe enough to reuse in almost any circumstance. Roughly two dozen massive stacks tower over Florida, a cradle of America’s fertilizer industry.
Piney Point’s tainted reservoirs reside within stacks, which have troubled the region for decades. In March 2021, the site became the epicenter of a full-blown crisis.
Water in one reservoir leaked through a torn plastic liner. Engineers feared pressure from the water would trigger a complete collapse of the stack. The pond held about 460 million gallons when it started leaking. Emergency responders worried all the water would rush out at once, flooding homes and businesses.
To avoid such a catastrophe, the state let Piney Point’s owner, HRK Holdings, pump wastewater into Tampa Bay. It contained high levels of nitrogen, which scientists say may have fed algae blooms, including a toxic Red Tide that devastated the region last summer.
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Florida has since sued HRK, saying the firm did not adequately care for Piney Point and failed to meet its promise of getting rid of contaminated water by 2019.
The state tried to close Piney Point before, spending tens of millions of dollars on cleanup in the early 2000s. But the Department of Environmental Protection supported an attempt to give the wasteland a new purpose, which failed. Hundreds of millions of gallons of newly polluted water have since filled the site.
Workers patched the leak and have tried to both treat and remove as much water as possible from the property over the last year. A judge appointed a Tampa lawyer to run Piney Point, keeping it safe in the short term while ultimately steering it toward closure.
The lawyer, Herb Donica, has said he wants to avoid another release to the bay but fears a hurricane or tropical storm could churn up heavy rains and winds that would stress the reservoirs, threatening to cause a leak.
Piney Point is still holding hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater as the wet season approaches.