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We are making every effort to close Piney Point, and keep Tampa Bay safe.

We are making every effort to close Piney Point, and keep Tampa Bay safe.

PALMETTO The former Piney Point fertilizer station is still a threat to the environment and hangs like an anvil above Tampa Bay.

A year after a property reservoir burst, releasing 215 million gallons polluted water into the bay, new management is expressing hope that there is a way out.

The pipe that runs from Port Manatee to the Gulf of Mexico no longer spews contaminated water. Engineers stopped predicting a catastrophic flood and collapse. A judge ordered an independent monitor to take over the property from the struggling owner, a Wall Street investor-founded company.

For the first-time in more than a decade the ultimate goal is not to reinvent or profit from the land, but to close Piney Point forever.

There is nothing good that can be done with this situation, said Herb Donica, a Tampa attorney who was appointed last year by a Manatee Circuit judge to manage the site. It must be shut down.

Related: Failure at Piney Point – Florida allows environmental risk to fester despite warnings

The Tampa Bay TimesThe property was toured in March by me, giving me a rare view of the scene of last year’s environmental disaster.

Donica’s ability for another crisis to be avoided depends on a small group working together with contractors and workers to execute an elaborate plan. It relies on a 3,300 feet-deep injection well and tens or millions of dollars in taxpayer funding.

Treated water cascades down the side of a reservoir liner at Piney Point as heavy machinery moves dirt in the background.
As heavy machinery and dirt move in the background, treated water cascades down the side Piney Point’s reservoir liner. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

How could it get so terrible?

Although the Piney Point fertilizer plant was demolished in 2001, it is still easy to locate its former location. Look for the hills.

The stacks that form the high, grassy flanks of Piney Point are made from a radioactive byproduct of fertilizer production. Piney Point is home to two stacks, each covering more than 400 acres. This is more than 300 football fields.

Near the Hillsborough-Manatee border, the stacks rise as a plateau seven stories high. The top is reached via a dirt road. From there, you can see Tampa and St. Petersburg as well as the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

Related: Piney Point, 1966-present: At the edge of disaster

Florida’s natural phosphate rock is used to make fertilizer. It is a lucrative industry that produces piles of a radioactive substance called Pyrogypsum.

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Federal officials claim it is safe enough to live near the stacks. The U.S. prohibits the reuse of any part of it. The remaining gypsum is piled high in huge mounds that tower over Florida for all eternity.

Piney Point’s grass-covered stacks surround plastic-lined, ponds that hold rainwater, seawater, and polluted leftovers from the manufacturing process.

A pipe snaking through old Piney Point fertilizer plant property was used to discharge wastewater into Tampa Bay last year.
Last year, Tampa Bay was discharged wastewater from Piney Point by a pipe that ran through the property of an old Piney Point fertilizer plants. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Piney Point was purchased by HRK Holdings in the mid-2000s. With state backing, they agreed to store the muck dredged out of Port Manatee. The goal was to give the site a new life. Instead, a plastic liner was installed in 2011 and the polluted fertilizer byproducts polluted the water.

Piney Point had to keep the contaminated water because it was partially filling the reservoirs. Rainwater pushed the ponds to their limits over the years.

In March 2021, another leakage was discovered. Florida’s environmental regulators permitted HRK Holdings, fearing that a reservoir would collapse and flood nearby homes and businesses with wastewater, to release millions of gallons into Tampa Bay.

According to the Tampa Bay estuary Program, the Piney Point discharge poured as much nitrogen into Lower Tampa Bay from March 30 through April 9.

The St. Petersburg skyline is visible over Tampa Bay from a phosphogypsum stack at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property on March 4.
From a phosphogypsum pile at the Piney Point fertilizer plant property, on March 4, you can see Tampa Bay’s skyline from the St. Petersburg skyline. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Scientists believe that the Red Tide bloom may have been a result of the contamination. This could have killed hundreds of tons marine life off the coast of the gulf beaches.

Related: Shrimp fishermen turn their nets towards death as Tampa Bay is under Red Tide.

HRK Holdings released a statement to reporters after the discharge. It stated that it was absurd to claim that the company had done anything other than what was required and allowed by Florida. HRK claimed that staff members identified problems repeatedly and offered solutions to state officials.

Since then, the firm has remained silent. The owner of HRK Holdings and the attorney have not returned calls, emails, or texts from the firm. Times For this story, we asked for comment in the past year.

HRK was sued by Florida’s environmental agency. They claimed that the company failed to maintain Piney Point or get rid of the contaminated waters safely. The state seeks to recover as much of the cleanup costs and repair costs as possible and to force HRK to pay damages.

Related: Florida sues Piney Point owner over polluted Tampa Bay discharge
Brandt Thomson, working with a contractor called EcoVAP, left, talks to Tampa attorney Herb Donica, who a Manatee circuit judge appointed to oversee Piney Point, clean it up and close it. They were discussing new technology being tested at the site March 4 to see if it could help evaporate water more quickly from Piney Point's wastewater ponds.
Brandt Thomson, who is working with EcoVAP as a contractor, talks to Herb Donica, a Tampa circuit judge, about closing Piney Point. They were discussing new technology that was being tested at the site March 4, to see if it could help evaporate more water from Piney Point’s wastewater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The cost of progress

Taxpayers will be responsible for closing Piney Point. No one knows the final cost.

Since the early 2000s, the state had committed tens of millions to the property. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the state has spent $85 million more to repair Piney Point and start the long process of closing it down permanently since the last year’s spillage.

Related: Florida: Piney Point will be under new Management

Last year, $81 million was allocated by the Legislature to close the site. According to the state there is still about $54million.

Donica stated that it costs $60,000 per month to keep the site up and pay the bills.

To prevent further leakage from the vast wastewater reservoirs, a few employees work alongside contractors. Water samples are tested by staff. Bulldozers push dirt and flatten it. Contractors treat the water from the pond to remove pollution in case there is another spillage.

Tampa attorney Herb Donica was appointed by a Manatee circuit judge to oversee the cleanup and closure of the site of the old Piney Point fertilizer plant.
Herb Donica, a Tampa attorney was appointed by Manatee Circuit Judge to oversee the cleanup and closing of the Piney Point fertilizer plant. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Donica, now 69, works 12-hour days and doesn’t have the time to take on any other clients at his Tampa law office. He is not experienced in managing a phosphogypsum heap, but he is familiarized with Piney Point. He was a bankruptcy trustee there around 20 years ago. A friend asked him if he was crazy when he signed up to manage the property.

Donica is certain that he can stop another disaster.

He said that his optimism comes from Jeff Barath who is a site manager who knows Piney Point like no one else.

Barath (50) patrols Piney Point using his own mud-splattered Jeep. He stated that he worked for the Department of Defense on environmental cleanups and was at the helm of the crisis in 2011.

Related: Piney Point cleanup and closure could take three years or more

Barath, who was working for HRK Holdings, said that he was overwhelmed by a tight budget and forced to react instead of planning for problems.

Barath stated that I was running with duct tape and balingwire. Barath quickly clarified that he meant it only as an analogy.

Barath recollects the chaotic days that followed the discovery that the 460-million gallon pond had a leak. But he didn’t know how or where. Manatee County officials ordered the evacuations of 300 homes nearby in fear that the reservoir would burst.

Related: Evacuations increase as Manatee’s phosphate plant falls

Barath described a quiet morning when he walked around the reservoir at 3 a.m. pressing a $12 drugstore stethoscope against a plastic liner that was supposed hold in the tainted water. Barath claimed that he heard a sound in one corner. Whoosh A gash below the surface is a sure sign.

Workers dropped a camera under water to locate the leak. Barath explained that crews patched the leak using a metal plate, sand and heaps of it. There were many worst-case scenarios if the liner wasn’t detected in time. A flood could have ripped through the walls and swept away entire neighborhoods. And The bay was tainted with more pollution than the controlled releases.

Water partially fills a reservoir at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site on March 4.
A reservoir partially filled by water at the Piney Point old fertilizer plant site in March 4. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Barath and other independent engineers had warned state and local officials before the leak that the reservoirs were at danger of overflowing and were close to capacity. Many times cracks in liners have been repaired. He now claims that more progress has been made over the past six months in cleaning up Piney Point than in the previous decade.

Barath knew Donica would be different, so he asked for two pumps. They might not be used but they could help in an emergency. Barath estimated that keeping them at Piney Point would run $18,000 per month. Donica approved.

Barath stated that there were many Band-Aids over many years. It’s now being done in the right way.

Related: Florida is suing Piney Points owners. Is the state also to blame for this?

Crews are gradually removing water from the site with evaporation systems. One system looks like a field filled with sprinklers, atop a lake. Millions upon millions of gallons have been piped into a county reclamation facility.

Donica stated that the water treatment company helped remove about 98 per cent of the phosphorus, nitrogen and water from the pond that leaked. The bay should be less polluted if there is another release.

Donica is most afraid of a hurricane. Crews are working fast to get rid of as much wastewater as possible before June’s rainy season. A tropical storm could produce the type of extreme rain and high winds that could stress the reservoirs, liner and phosphogypsum, potentially causing leaks or spillages.

See Also

A spray evaporation system helps remove water from a pond at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property on March 4.
A spray evaporation unit removes water from the pond at the Piney Point property, which was built in March. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Donica will continue to oversee operations until Piney Point closes. He stated that he had reduced his hourly rate from $350 to $350.

Donica said that Florida’s environment agency monitors the monthly budgets. He said that even if Barath purchases a $1 or $2 bolt, he keeps the receipt.

Crews are currently repairing a slow leak that was discovered this year but have not seen any discharge to Tampa Bay. The 11-foot alligator was found swimming in a pond while eating ducks.

Baraths fingers are shorter than Baraths’ claws and could have made another hole in this liner.

Water is collected and treated in a pond at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property on March 4.
Water is collected at the Piney Point property, where it was once used to fertilize. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Plan for the end

Here’s the plan that the state approved for closing Piney Point

The reservoirs will be drained by workers for months. A lot of the water will flow across the street to Manatee County property where a machine drills 3300 feet into the ground.

Related: Florida approves plan: shutter Piney Point

Scott Hopes, Manatee County Administrator, stated that officials will treat Piney Point’s wastewater and pump it below the drinking water supply. Some critics worry that the well could pollute the aquifer. However, the county insists it is safe.

The well could be running by the end this year.

Hopes stated that Piney Point is still at risk. This is a race against all odds.

Drilling for a deep injection well continues near the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site. Officials plan to use the well to pump treated wastewater from Piney Point deep underground.
Near the Piney Point old fertilizer plant site, drilling continues for a deep-injection well. Officials plan to use this well to pump Piney Point’s wastewater underground. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Construction teams will cover the compartments with plastic liners once they have dried.

Barath stated that every inch of rain adds 3.7 millions gallons to Piney Points’ ponds. It is contaminated as soon it touches wastewater.

Barath stated that the site receives approximately 54 inches of rain per year.

The cover should prevent rainwater from touching the water gypsum or tainted, which will end the steady buildup of ponds. Instead, the water should flow through drains like regular stormwater.

Related: Piney Point cleanup and closure could take three years or more

The plan allows for the property to be closed as soon as December 2024.

Ed Sherwood, executive director of Tampa Bay Estuary Program who monitors and advocates to protect the bay, said that even having a vision about Piney Point is progress. However, the ponds will need to survive at most one more summer before they can be capped.

He stated that this rainy season would be another challenge.

Heavy equipment is used to level and distribute dirt March 4 at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property.
Heavy equipment is used for leveling and distributing dirt March 4, at the Piney Point fertilizer plants property. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Lingering responsibility

As the state defines closure, it does not mean that Piney Point will disappear in its entirety. The cleanup plan will prevent rain from adding to the contaminated reservoirs. However, the phosphogypsum heaps may remain for ever.

The stacks, when compressed under their own weight will seep old fertilizer manufacturing water still trapped within the Gypsum. It is similar to wringing out damp rags.

A large relief ditch will help manage stormwater in the future at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property.
A large relief ditch will be built to manage stormwater at the Piney Point fertilizer plant site. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Donica said that the water would be treated and pumped from the well. The worry for Piney Point will be who takes over after his work is finished. HRK Holdings could lose some of the most valuable property pieces in foreclosure.

Barath sees himself moving away from the gypsum heaps to find a new home in optimism. He said he is committed to the work out of obligation and ego, as he also lives in Tampa Bay and has vowed that Piney Point will be a success.

He said, “I want to be the last person to leave this site.”

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