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When will Piney Point close? We toured the troubled plant.

Piney Point is the site of one of Florida’s worst ecological disasters in recent years. The Tampa Bay Times toured the plant recently to get an update on its closure.
 
Herb Donica, the court-appointed receiver in charge of day-to-day operations at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system, observes an area containing geotextile fabric tubes being used to store and drain a slurry of dredged sediment from an adjacent phosphogypsum stack.
Herb Donica, the court-appointed receiver in charge of day-to-day operations at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system, observes an area containing geotextile fabric tubes being used to store and drain a slurry of dredged sediment from an adjacent phosphogypsum stack. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 29|Updated Feb. 4

Closing Piney Point is personal for Jeff Barath.

He has managed the site for 20 years, has watched the plant change ownership multiple times and has navigated several crises.

Not by his choosing, Barath became the spokesperson for HRK Holdings, the company that owned the plant during a 2021 ecological disaster in which roughly 215 million gallons of tainted water from the fertilizer site were sent into Tampa Bay.

Beyond his appearances on TV pledging to right the wrongs from the leak, Barath said he spent countless nights sleeping at the plant. He became the scapegoat. Someone threw balloons filled with red paint at his home, likely because of his role with Piney Point, he believes.

His two daughters watched their dad through it all.

“This is my community, too,” he said. “I fish right out there.”

Site manager Jeff Barath, left, and reservoir court-appointed receiver Herb Donica inspect the area where a leak was discovered in the New Gypsum Stack South reservoir at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site.
Site manager Jeff Barath, left, and reservoir court-appointed receiver Herb Donica inspect the area where a leak was discovered in the New Gypsum Stack South reservoir at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

With Barath’s help, Piney Point is on a path to closing.

It has been nearly three years since the crisis, one of Florida’s worst ecological disasters in recent times. In August 2021, a judge ordered new management at the facility, putting an independent receiver in charge to see it shuttered.

While the state-approved plan estimates December for closure, site managers told the Tampa Bay Times it will likely be mid-2025.

In September, crews celebrated a milestone: A former pond that sat atop a gypsum stack was closed. One down, three to go.

“Shutting the plant down is an angry animal,” said Herb Donica, a lawyer and the court-appointed overseer of the plant. The process is time consuming, extensive — and expensive.

How does Donica, the front man tapped by a Manatee County judge as a third party to close Piney Point, tame the angry animal? First, his team starts with the water in Piney Point’s stacks, which look like sweeping retention ponds.

Water is removed so it can be chemically treated prior to being pumped underground. The stack then is dried out: Crews dump tons of sand into the stack to help it drain. Next, they add a plastic liner, two feet of topsoil, with Bermuda grass as a final layer.

Herb Donica is the court-appointed receiver in charge of day-to-day operations at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system at the site’s headquarters.
Herb Donica is the court-appointed receiver in charge of day-to-day operations at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system at the site’s headquarters. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

After crews closed the first stack in September, focus has turned to the largest pond on the property, which has up to 10 feet of sediment in it from a Port Manatee dredging project in the mid-2000s. While crews remove that sand, they are also draining water from the remaining ponds.

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On a recent afternoon, Donica walked the property with a handful of his team members. His hard hat replaced a baseball cap touting the words “SOLVEM PROBLER.” A gift from his wife and son.

At 70, Donica is no stranger to problem solving in the world of phosphates. He has a long history at Piney Point, where he worked with the bankruptcy trustee for a previous owner, Mulberry Corp., which folded more than two decades ago.

Related: Piney Point pollution spread farther than first thought, new study shows

So in 2021, when Donica told friends that he could again be working at Piney Point, they replied: “Are you freaking crazy?” It would be a painstaking job that required patience and careful organization.

He couldn’t pass it up.

“He’s provided leadership. He’s that one person that gets to stand in the middle of all the political concerns, the environmental concerns, the economic concerns and the county concerns,” Barath said. “He became the one person that I have seen in 20 years who stood in the middle of all of that, and somehow found a way to bring that entire group together.”

Water is transferred between reservoirs at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system .
Water is transferred between reservoirs at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system . [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Where does Piney Point’s water go?

In March 2023, Manatee County utility crews stood ready to begin pumping Piney Point’s water underground.

Crews drilled a nearby well to a saltwater aquifer 3,300 feet below the surface. Disposing the water through an underground well is safe and secure, Manatee County and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection agreed.

Fast forward to early January, and crews have pumped more than 107 million gallons of water from Piney Point into the well, according to state environment regulators.

That’s enough water to fill more than 160 Olympic swimming pools.

Environmental compliance technician Scott Martin collects data from a flow rate meter while monitoring the transfer of water between reservoirs at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system.
Environmental compliance technician Scott Martin collects data from a flow rate meter while monitoring the transfer of water between reservoirs at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Regulators say injecting Piney Point’s water into the earth is a key step in “permanently eliminating the threat” to the environment and nearby communities. But not everyone agrees that pumping underground — instead of highly treating it and releasing it to surface waters — is a smart move.

Glenn Compton, chairperson of the local environmental advocacy group ManaSota-88, said deep wells are typically used as a cost-saving measure to quickly get rid of polluted water. He worries that the well could spring leaks into Manatee County’s groundwater.

“All wells leak over time,” Compton said. “Deep well injection is never an exact science — it’s based more on faith, rather than science.”

Work continues on a storage pile of dirt used for recontouring the surfaces of ponds at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system.
Work continues on a storage pile of dirt used for recontouring the surfaces of ponds at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Another, smaller spill at Piney Point

If 2024 is set to be a year of progress toward closing Piney Point, it got off to a rocky start.

On the second day of the year, a concrete company on the property was moving the pipe through which millions of gallons of polluted water flowed into Tampa Bay in 2021. The “big, ugly” pipe, as Donica called it, is 36 inches in diameter and still had tainted water in it.

It was a cold morning when the company moved the pipe and the lower temps made it brittle. It kinked like a bent plastic straw and ruptured, Donica said. The result was a 21-hour leak that dumped 25 gallons of polluted water per minute onto the Piney Point property, according to state pollution reports.

Related: Tampa Bay lost 12% of its seagrass in 2 years; some areas at historic low, study shows

Workers dug a pool around the leak and captured the water. All told, an estimated 14,000 gallons were recovered.

The environmental harm was minimal, Donica said. But this is Piney Point, after all.

“The forces of evil came together and took one last shot at the place,” Donica said with a laugh.

“While it’s not that bad, it sure ain’t all that good, either. We cringe because the words of Piney Point will be associated with yet another spill – but we had nothing to do with it.”

A patched area remains intact at the New Gypsum Stack South reservoir at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system.
A patched area remains intact at the New Gypsum Stack South reservoir at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Environmental impacts still unfolding

Research is underway to determine Piney Point’s ecological impact. It could take years before the scope is known.

A study published in June suggested the polluted water spread farther than previously thought, stretching more than 30 miles to near Tarpon Springs.

The findings add more weight to evidence that red tide and other algal blooms in the bay during summer 2021 were linked to the polluted discharges from Piney Point, according to the study’s authors.

The part of Tampa Bay’s estuary closest to Piney Point lost 8% of its seagrass, or nearly 700 acres, in two years, according to a recent state survey. Seagrass losses have recently been more pronounced on the eastern side of Tampa Bay, near Piney Point, compared to the western side.

In March 2022, a federal judge put a 6-month hold on a lawsuit that environmental groups, including Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and ManaSota-88, filed in 2021. The groups alleged that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other defendants had mishandled the site for years.

Justin Tramble, executive director of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, told the Times mediation in the case continues though specific details couldn’t be disclosed.

Rep. Mike Beltran (R-Hillsborough) visited Piney Point in December to check on the closure. He said it looked like crews were making good progress, and that “it’s a shame Florida taxpayers had to foot the bill” for the disaster and its aftermath. The Florida Legislature in 2021 approved $100 million to close the plant, and Gov. Ron DeSantis last year approved an additional $85 million.

Barath, the site manager, is asked frequently by his family what he’ll do once the plant is closed.

He’s thought about taking a job that’ll allow him to travel again — something he’s missed for the past two decades. Or maybe he’ll go off the grid, to the Tennessee mountains. Or, he joked, he’ll work at an Ace Hardware, selling hammers.

But for now, his focus is elsewhere.

“I’ve got to close Piney Point first,” he said. “That is what I want really bad, for this community and for myself.”