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Ahead of Isaac's rainfall, DEP tries to halt potential toxic spill from Piney Point

Published Aug. 25, 2012

Along with fretting over whether Isaac's winds and flooding will wreck homes and businesses and roads, here's another worry for Tampa Bay residents: toxic waste overflowing from a long-abandoned fertilizer plant.

Near the southern end of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge sits Piney Point, which in 2003 was dubbed by a state official "one of the biggest environmental threats in Florida history."

Although state Department of Environmental Protection officials avoided potentially serious consequences then, they had to deal with a spill of 170 million gallons last year and now face another dire situation.

Thanks to the heavy rains of Tropical Storm Debby, Piney Point's storage capacity is full. Rain from Isaac could push the toxic contents over the top.

"We seem to be almost at a worst-case scenario here," said Glenn Compton of the environmental group ManaSota-88, which has been critical of the state's response to the Piney Point threat.

However, both the company now operating Piney Point and DEP officials say they're taking steps to deal with the potential problem.

"We've worked with DEP and our engineers to be sure that we're fully prepared and can handle the anticipated water volume," said Jordan Raynor, CEO of HRK Holdings, in an email to the Times.

HRK had informed the state earlier that, thanks to Debby, Piney Point's reservoir has reached "maximum water design water level," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said. However, Piney Point's waste has another 3 feet before it overtops the embankment and spills.

To deal with Isaac, DEP approved letting HRK funnel waste into a holding tank that was not built for that purpose. HRK's engineer is supposed to report to the DEP on the stability of the wall holding back the waste.

The Piney Point plant, built in 1966, has been a headache for years, as it leaked pollution into the ground and released toxic clouds that sickened workers. In 2003, the owner declared bankruptcy and walked away, abandoning towering gypsum stacks topped with reservoirs containing hundreds of millions of gallons of highly acidic wastewater.

State officials, fearing a spill would devastate sea life for miles around, took over the plant and began slowly discharging millions of gallons of ammonia-laden waste into ditches flowing into nearby Bishop Harbor. The dumping spurred a large algae bloom in what's supposed to be an aquatic preserve.

Then, as hurricane season loomed, DEP officials got federal permission for an unprecedented step: loading millions of gallons of treated waste onto barges that sprayed it across 20,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico. They declared the crisis averted.

Last year, disaster struck again. Mechanical equipment tore a hole in a liner designed to keep the pollution contained.

DEP officials once again approved pouring Piney Point's contents into Bishop Harbor. Since then, HRK has failed to comply with requirements the DEP imposed for fixing problems and is facing bankruptcy.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

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