TALLAHASSEE — Florida environmental regulators issued a permit Thursday for a controversial project that involves injecting wastewater from a troubled former phosphate plant into the ground.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced it made the long-anticipated move of issuing the permit to Manatee County for an injection well at the Piney Point site. The site drew widespread attention — and $100 million from the state — this spring after massive amounts of polluted water were released to avert a potential catastrophe.
“This (injection well) project is one critical element of the necessary water disposal that will enable the ultimate closure of the Piney Point facility once and for all, eliminating the threat from this site to the environment and the community permanently,” the Department of Environmental Protection said in an update issued late Thursday.
But the project has drawn criticism from environmental groups and officials such as state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running for governor in 2022. Fried issued a statement Thursday that said injecting the wastewater underground threatens drinking water.
“Today’s decision by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to allow deep-well injection of Piney Point’s hazardous waste is beyond reckless — it’s complete negligence of their responsibility to defend our environment and citizens,” Fried said in the statement. “This has never been done in Florida for a reason.”
Piney Point includes hazardous phosphogypsum stacks, a byproduct of phosphate production, which took place at the site from 1966 to 1999. It also contains large reservoirs of contaminated wastewater.
About 215 million gallons of wastewater were discharged from the site into Tampa Bay in April because of fears about a potentially catastrophic breach of a reservoir. A federal lawsuit filed in June by environmental groups said the discharges, in part, caused harmful algae blooms and fish kills. Also, nearby residents had to be temporarily evacuated because of the fears of a breach.
State lawmakers earmarked $100 million in April to help resolve problems at the site. The Department of Environmental Protection in November issued a “notice of intent” to approve the Manatee County permit for the injection well.
In announcing Thursday that it had issued the permit, the department said it determined that the project “meets all applicable regulations for protection of groundwater resources and the environment following a thorough review. This review included 12 requests for additional information and approximately 7,356 public comments.”
Conservation groups filed a notice in September that they planned to sue Manatee County over the project. Lawyers for the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation contended in the notice that using an injection well to dispose of wastewater from the site would violate a federal law known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
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The permit challenge would be separate from the lawsuit filed in June, which argues the state and other defendants long mishandled the Piney Point site. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration this month asked a judge to toss out the lawsuit.
“The Piney Point facility will be closed as swiftly and safely as possible,” attorneys for the Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a motion to dismiss the case. “Mobilizing all three branches of state government, the state of Florida is making considerable progress toward this goal.”
BY JIM SAUNDERS