State officials authorized the release of more than 400 million gallons of contaminated water from the Piney Point reservoirs, just months after site operators warned that the ponds were reaching maximum capacity.
The planned release comes after a leak was discovered in the 77-acre process water pond on Thursday of last week. Since then, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has been in consultation with site operators, approving a request to drain the pond in order to prevent “a containment failure and catastrophic release” of process water.
“The department’s top priority is ensuring the protection of public safety and health and minimizing any potential environmental impacts,” FDEP Press Secretary Weesam Khoury said in a statement released to the Bradenton Herald on Monday evening. “To that end, today, the department has issued an Emergency Final Order requiring that HRK take immediate action and implement all necessary steps to ensure the integrity of the stack system and its lined impoundments and prevent an uncontrolled discharge.”
“HRK and their third-party engineer have determined their actions are not able to prevent a catastrophic failure without a preventative controlled release,” the statement continued.
FDEP officials said early indications point to a lining tear in the 77-acre pond as the cause of the leak. That pond is the largest of the three reservoirs on the 676-acre site and holds about 480 million gallons of water.
According to a pollution notice filed with FDEP Monday afternoon, the leak could destabilize the gypsum stack, which is why site operators requested an emergency final order to clear the entire pond.
In the meantime, site operators began sending a smaller amount of water into Piney Point Creek, just north of the former phosphate plant. That release of water “is being done in order to keep the integrity of the stack system,” according to the pollution notice, which listed the spill as an on-going release.
“HRK Holdings, LLC, would like to report process water bypassing the wastewater management system and releasing into Piney Point Creek, which leads into lower Tampa Bay,” the pollution notice said.
Piney Point has infrastructure that allows for the pond to drain out to Port Manatee, leading directly into Tampa Bay. State officials approved the emergency final order Monday afternoon, clearing the way for site operators to pump water as soon as possible.
Following a systems check, site operators expect to begin pumping out the process water by Tuesday afternoon. Moving forward, HRK Holdings, LLC, the private owner of the Piney Point property, will be required to provide detailed updates to FDEP every 24 hours.
The recent breach comes as the Manatee Board of County Commissioners refocused on finding a resolution to Piney Point. Board members recently met with state legislators and the FDEP officials to discuss what can be done to get rid of the contaminated process water once and for all.
Process water is a chemical byproduct of phosphate mining that is usually treated before it’s released. The water is high in nutrients that can lead to harmful algae blooms like red tide.
Commissioners are ‘gravely concerned’ about spill
News of the leak came as a shock and a disappointment to county commissioners, who said they believed they were close to finally resolving an issue that has gone unaddressed for decades.
“Manatee County had no role in Piney Point, however, our new board felt the need to try to find a solution to decades of neglect at Piney Point. Unfortunately, it looks as if we couldn’t get it done fast enough,” said Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge.
“We are gravely concerned,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore added.
In a tweet posted Monday evening, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, said that he has been in contact with FDEP officials and is monitoring the situation.
“This is a potential environmental disaster if it isn’t handled properly,” Buchanan wrote. “The Piney Point fertilizer plant was abandoned in 2001. Its contaminated phosphogypsum stacks remain a threat that needs to be resolved.”
In September, Jeff Barath, Piney Point’s site manager, told the board that the ponds were holding about 750 million gallons of water, putting the site at 92 percent capacity. By January, the site held about 800 million gallons of water.
Spills have happened at Piney Point before. In 2001, Tropical Storm Gabrielle forced FDEP to release 10 million gallons of water into Bishop Harbor. FDEP ordered another release 10 years later after discovering a breached pond liner, sending 170 million gallons of water into the bay.
The board hopes to secure a fund-sharing agreement with FDEP this year to build a deepwater injection well that would put the contaminated water deep below the ground surface. In January, the board voted to approve an appropriations request in the Florida Legislature that would see the county provide up to $6 million to pay for half of an “emergency water treatment program.”