PALMETTO — The site of the former Piney Point fertilizer plant is still an environmental threat hanging like an anvil over Tampa Bay.
But one year since a reservoir on the property sprang a leak — leading to the release of 215 million gallons of polluted water into the bay — new management is offering a sense of hope that an end to the danger is within reach.
A pipe snaking to Port Manatee no longer spits tainted water. Engineers stopped warning of an imminent collapse and devastating flood. And a judge ordered an independent overseer to take control of the property from its struggling owner, a company formed by Wall Street investors.
For the first time in more than a decade, the ultimate goal is to close Piney Point forever, not to reinvent or profit off the land.
“Nothing good can be done with this,” said Tampa lawyer Herb Donica, who was appointed last summer by a Manatee circuit judge to manage the site. “It’s got to be shut down.”
The Tampa Bay Times toured the property in early March, getting a rare glimpse inside the scene of last year’s environmental disaster.
Whether Donica can head off another crisis depends on a small team of workers and contractors executing an elaborate plan that hinges on a 3,300 foot-deep injection well and tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding — along with a little luck this hurricane season.
How did it get so bad?
The Piney Point fertilizer plant was abandoned in 2001, but the place where it once stood is easy to find. Just look for the hills.
The high, grassy flanks are part of stacks built from a radioactive byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing. Two stacks at Piney Point cover more than 400 acres off U.S. 41. That’s bigger than 300 football fields combined.
The stacks rise like a plateau about seven stories tall near the Hillsborough-Manatee county line. A dirt road leads to the top, where you can see the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa and the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Phosphate rock is found naturally across Florida and is mined to make fertilizer. It is a lucrative industry that leaves behind piles of a chalky, radioactive substance called phosphogypsum, or gypsum for short.
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Federal officials say it is safe enough for people to live and work near the stacks. But the U.S. does not allow almost any of it to be reused. So the remaining gypsum sits in massive mounds that may tower above Florida for eternity.
The grass-covered stacks at Piney Point surround plastic-lined ponds, which hold seawater, rainwater and polluted remnants from the manufacturing process.
HRK Holdings bought Piney Point in the mid-2000s and, with state backing, agreed to store muck dredged from the bottom of Port Manatee. The idea was to give the site new life. Instead, a plastic liner tore in 2011 and polluted fertilizer byproducts contaminated water from the dredging project.
The tainted water had to be kept at Piney Point, partially filling the reservoirs. Over the years, rain pushed the ponds to the brink.
Another leak was detected in March 2021. Fearing a reservoir could collapse and flood nearby homes and businesses with wastewater, Florida’s environmental regulators allowed HRK Holdings to release millions of gallons into Tampa Bay.
From March 30 until April 9, the Piney Point discharge dumped as much nitrogen into Lower Tampa Bay as the area typically sees in a year, according to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.
Scientists say the contamination may have fed a toxic Red Tide bloom that killed hundreds of tons of marine life in the bay and off the nearby gulf beaches.
After the discharge, HRK Holdings issued a statement to reporters saying it was “preposterous” to claim the company had previously “done anything other than what was required of and allowed by the state of Florida.” HRK said its staff members repeatedly identified problems and proposed solutions to state officials.
Since then, the firm has been silent. HRK Holdings’ owner and attorney have not responded to calls, emails or texts from the Times seeking comment in the last year, including for this story.
Florida’s environmental agency sued HRK, saying the company failed to maintain Piney Point and get rid of the contaminated water safely. The state wants to recoup as much of the cleanup and repair costs as it can and force the firm to pay damages.
The cost of progress
Taxpayers will have to pay to close Piney Point. No one has estimated what the final bill could be.
The state had dedicated tens of millions of dollars to the property starting in the early 2000s. Since the spill last year, it has spent another $85 million to fix Piney Point and begin the long process of shuttering it for good, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
The Legislature last year allocated $81 million to close the site. There’s about $54 million left, according to the state.
Just keeping the site running and paying the bills costs as much as $60,000 a month, Donica said.
A handful of employees work beside contractors to prevent more leaks from the enormous wastewater reservoirs. Staffers test water samples. Bulldozers push and flatten dirt. A contractor treats water from the pond that leaked to strip out pollution in case of another spill.
At 69, Donica works 12-hour days, he said, and he no longer has time to take on other clients at his Tampa law practice. He has no experience overseeing a phosphogypsum stack, but he is familiar with Piney Point. He worked with a bankruptcy trustee there about 20 years ago. When he signed on to manage the property a friend asked if he was crazy.
But Donica is confident he can prevent another disaster.
He said his optimism stems from the man he keeps in charge of most of the technical work: Jeff Barath, a site manager who knows Piney Point as well as anyone.
Barath, 50, patrols Piney Point in his own mud-splattered SUV. He has worked on environmental cleanups for the Department of Defense, he said, and was at the helm when the crisis exploded last year.
While working for HRK Holdings, Barath said, he was hamstrung by a threadbare budget, forced to react to problems instead of preparing for them.
“I was running around with baling wire and duct tape,” Barath said. He quickly clarified he meant that only as an analogy.
Barath remembers the frenzied days when it became clear the 460-million gallon pond was leaking — but not how or where. Fearing the reservoir would collapse, Manatee County officials ordered the evacuation of more than 300 nearby homes.
One hushed morning, Barath said, he walked around the reservoir about 3 a.m., pressing a $12 drugstore stethoscope against the plastic liner that was supposed to hold in tainted water. Near one corner, Barath said, he heard a whoosh — a sure sign of a gash below the surface.
Workers placed a camera underwater to find the leak. Crews patched the liner using a metal plate and heaps of sand, Barath said. If it hadn’t been detected in time, there was no lack of worst-case scenarios: A flood could have burst through the walls, overrunning neighborhoods and tainting the bay with more pollution than the controlled release did.
Before the leak, Barath and independent engineers had warned both state and local officials that the reservoirs were nearing capacity and at risk of spilling. Cracked liners had been patched many times. Now he says more progress has been made in the last six months to clean up Piney Point than over the previous decade.
Barath knew working for Donica would be different when he asked to rent two pumps, he said. They might never be used, but they would help manage water in the event of another emergency. Keeping them at Piney Point would cost $18,000 a month, Barath said. Donica approved.
“There were a lot of Band-Aids for a lot of years,” Barath said. “Now it’s being done the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Crews are slowly removing water from the site by using evaporation systems, including one that looks like a field of sprinklers atop a pond. Millions of gallons have been piped to a county reclamation plant.
A water treatment firm helped strip about 98 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen from the water remaining in the pond that leaked, Donica said. If there is another release, it should carry less pollution to the bay.
Donica’s biggest fear is a hurricane. Crews are rushing to remove as much wastewater as possible before the rainy season begins in June. A tropical cyclone could generate the kind of high winds and extreme rain that would stress the reservoirs, liners and phosphogypsum, threatening spills or leaks.
Until Piney Point closes, Donica will oversee operations, such as mowing hundreds of acres of grass. He said he lowered his usual hourly rate to $350.
Florida’s environmental agency scrutinizes the monthly budgets, Donica said. Even if Barath buys a $1 or $2 bolt, he said, he keeps the receipt.
Crews have been patching another slow leak discovered this year, but that has not caused a discharge into Tampa Bay. They trapped an 11½-foot alligator that was swimming in a pond, munching on ducks.
Its claws, longer than Barath’s fingers, could have carved another hole in the liner.
Planning for the end
Here’s the plan the state approved to close Piney Point:
Workers will spend months draining the reservoirs. Much of the water is expected to flow across the street, onto a property owned by Manatee County, where a machine drills a well 3,300 feet into the earth.
Officials will treat the wastewater from Piney Point and pump it far below the drinking water supply, said Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes. Some critics fear the well could contaminate the aquifer, but the county says it will be safe.
The well may start running by the end of this year.
“Piney Point is still very much at risk,” Hopes said. “This is a race against the clock.”
Once the compartments are dry, construction teams will install plastic liners and pack a couple of feet of soil on top as a protective cover.
Every inch of rain adds 3.7 million gallons to Piney Point’s ponds, Barath said, becoming contaminated as soon as it touches wastewater.
The site receives about 54 inches of rain in an average year, Barath said.
In the future, the cover should keep rainfall from touching the gypsum or tainted water, ending the steady buildup of the ponds. Instead, the water should be swept away through drains, like regular stormwater.
Under the plan, the property could be closed as early as December 2024.
Tampa Bay Estuary Program executive director Ed Sherwood, whose organization monitors and advocates for the bay, said even having a vision for Piney Point is progress. But before the ponds are capped, they will need to survive at least one more summer.
“This rainy season is going to be another test,” he said.
Closure, as the state defines it, does not mean every part of Piney Point will disappear. While the cleanup plan should prevent rainfall from adding to the tainted reservoirs, the phosphogypsum piles will remain, perhaps forever.
Compressed under their own weight, the stacks will seep old water from fertilizer manufacturing still trapped within the gypsum. The process is similar to wringing out a damp rag.
Donica said the water will be treated and pumped down the well. But maintaining Piney Point long-term will be the concern of whoever takes over after his work is done. HRK Holdings could lose the most valuable pieces of the property in foreclosure.
Barath imagines moving far from the gypsum stacks then, to somewhere in the mountains. He is committed to the work, he said, out of obligation and ego — because he lives in Tampa Bay, too, and has vowed to see Piney Point through.
“I want to be the last person who walks off this site,” he said.