Is a working chlorine plant at Tampa’s Rattlesnake Point a safety risk?

Mayor Jane Castor’s administration is currently exploring options on the narrow peninsula just south of the Gandy Bridge.
Aerial view of Rattlesnake Point showing a chlorine plant near residential areas. Neighborhood activists and City Council member John Dingfelder want the plant relocated because of safety concerns.
Aerial view of Rattlesnake Point showing a chlorine plant near residential areas. Neighborhood activists and City Council member John Dingfelder want the plant relocated because of safety concerns. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2021|Updated Dec. 23, 2021

TAMPA — It’s been an issue for years: What to do about a working South Tampa chlorine plant, which uses potentially deadly materials, and is increasingly surrounded by apartment complexes?

Earlier this year, an attorney representing Chemical Formulators, Inc., the plant’s operator, told City Council members that a proposed 299-unit apartment complex shouldn’t be approved because of the danger.

Related: Should Tampa allow hundreds of apartments to go up next to a chemical plant?

Chemical Formulators manufactures water treatment supplies on what was formerly a large industrial patch of land now undergoing residential development. The company uses chlorine and caustic soda to make its products. Both chemicals are highly dangerous if they leak or explode.

Since then, Woodfield Acquisitions, the would-be developer of the apartment complex, has sued the city over council members’ rejection of the proposal. That lawsuit is ongoing.

The legal imbroglio prompted Cate Wells, chief assistant city attorney, to request that the City Council not discuss the Rattlesnake Point situation at its Dec. 16 meeting. Council members complied with her request, moving future discussion into 2022.

But nearby residents did offer their opinions during public comment, comparing the chlorine plant to a ticking time bomb that could endanger the lives of thousands of residents if an explosion or leak occurs. One nearby resident and activist with the South of Gandy community organization, Carol Ann Bennett, said the plant could also be a tempting target for terrorists.

Council member John Dingfelder, who has been the most vocal about safety concerns, has pointed to the limited ways for apartment dwellers to escape if an emergency occurs. W Tyson Avenue is the only road in and out of Rattlesnake Point, once famous for the plentiful venomous snakes that gave the narrow peninsula its name.

Chemical Formulators didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday, but its representatives in the past have urged the city to reverse a 2016 agreement that allowed residential development on Rattlesnake Point.

In February, another apartment complex was approved by a 4-2 council vote, with Dingfelder and Chairman Orlando Gudes opposed. An expert testified that the last leak at the plant had occurred in 2003 and the developer had taken precautions, including locating the apartment buildings farther away from the plant and reducing the number of apartments.

Related: Tampa City Council approves apartments on Rattlesnake Point

That same developer, Orion Marine Construction Inc., is now considering purchasing the Chemical Formulators property, according to a letter written by Wells, the chief assistant city attorney, to council members.

“It is my understanding that the urgency expressed by Elise Batsel (attorney for the developer) for a decision by the City on the CFI parcel has been lessened due to a delay in the anticipated closing. Notwithstanding, the City continues to discuss with Ms. Batsel alternative financing arrangements,” Wells wrote in the Dec. 15 email to council members.

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Batsel didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday.

What would be the city’s role in “financing arrangements?”

Carole Post, Tampa’s administrator for development and economic opportunity, said the city is discussing options with “private entities” to find a solution. But details haven’t been presented publicly.

“The Administration is discussing options to help transform the Rattlesnake area of South Tampa to reflect the evolving needs of the community. Currently there are at least two private sector pending land transactions that could bring about changes to the area.

“The city is in discussion with representatives of these private entities to explore ways to enable a plan that results in a positive outcome for the existing residents and the surrounding community, while mitigating possible unintended consequences or impacts on other city taxpayers. We look forward to continuing these time sensitive discussions to try to strike a mutually-beneficial outcome for all involved,” Post said in a statement Wednesday.

Mayor Jane Castor’s spokesperson Adam Smith declined to comment on the possibility of using tax-increment financing, earmarking future property tax revenue to help pay for removal of the plant, but did say that all the private sector parties have deep pockets and don’t necessarily need city help.

“They’re all millionaires,” Smith said.