On Thursday, Florida regulators approved a plan that would remove hundreds of millions of gallons worth of wastewater from the Piney Point site of the old fertilizer plants.
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the goal is to end the looming environmental threat to Tampa Bay. Piney Point was responsible for 215,000,000 gallons of wastewater that were dumped into Tampa Bay in spring 2013.
Today, thanks to ongoing efforts by DEP, Manatee County, and the court-appointed receiver we are in an significantly better place than when we were there. This approval marks a key milestone in ensuring that this is the last chapter of Piney Point’s long history, stated Shawn Hamilton, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary.
The cost of closing Piney Point is unknown. The project was approved by the state legislatures last year. The work could be completed as soon as December 2024.
The plan was created to eliminate the danger posed hundreds of millions of gallons stored wastewater on the site. The water contains a mixture of polluted byproducts of fertilizer manufacturing and additional water that was contaminated when it came in contact with that waste.
If the workers are successful, they will drain the huge reservoirs on the property and treat the water before pumping it down a 3,300 foot well across the street, which is owned by Manatee county.
Crews will cover the ponds with soil and plastic liners after they have been emptied. This will prevent future rains from polluting the ponds and adding to the waste already stored there. Instead, the rain will run off like stormwater.
The Piney Point property’s dominant feature is the phosphogypsum piles. They cover hundreds of acreage and are made from a chalky byproduct from fertilizer production. The federal government has determined that the gypsum contains high levels of radioactivity and is safe to be near but not safe enough to use in any other circumstances. Florida is home to roughly two dozen enormous stacks, which tower over the state.
The stacks contain toxic reservoirs from Piney Points that have plagued the region for decades. The site became the epicenter for a full-blown crisis in March 2021.
One reservoir had water seepage through its plastic liner. Engineers feared the stack would collapse due to pressure from the water. When it began leaking, the pond contained approximately 460 million gallons wastewater. Emergency responders were concerned that all of this could have rushed out at once, flooding homes as well as businesses.
To avoid such a disaster, the state allowed Piney Points owner HRK Holdings to pump wastewater into Tampa Bay. This water contained high levels nitrate, which may have contributed to the algae blooms that plagued the region, as well as a toxic Red Tide.
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Florida sued HRK after it was found that the firm failed to properly care for Piney Point, and did not fulfill its promise to get rid of contaminated water by 2019.
The state spent tens of millions on cleanup in the early 2000s to try and close Piney Point. The Department of Environmental Protection supported a move to give the wasteland another purpose, but this failed. The site has been filled with hundreds of millions upon millions of gallons polluted waters.
Workers repaired the leak and have been trying to treat and remove as much water from the property as possible over the past year. A Tampa lawyer was appointed to run Piney Point. This will allow it to be both safe and move towards closure.
Herb Donica, a lawyer, stated that he wants to avoid another release into the bay, but fears that a hurricane or tropical thunderstorm could bring heavy rains and winds to the reservoirs, potentially threatening to cause another leak.
Piney Point is still holding hundreds to millions of gallons wastewater as the wetseason approaches.