The slow-motion phosphate wastewater spill occurring at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in Palmetto will only be solved by removing the source.
I wrote yesterday that the Florida Legislature has a role here since the private company that the state shuttled the problem off to in 2006 seems financially incapable—that’s the official story anyway—and as it turns out an effort had been under way even before the latest chapter of this decades-long saga opened.
A $6 million appropriation request was submitted in early March by State Rep. William Robinson to secure state matching funds—Manatee County will contribute $6 million, too—to come up with a plan to close the gypsum stack and to do something with the hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water in the complex’s ponds other than dumping it into Tampa Bay to prevent a sewage tsunami.
One option may be deep-well injection, perhaps similar to what has occurred with other acidic wastewater at other industrial facilities in the region. That will certainly raise the cost, but there are few alternatives for dealing with that much polluted water.
As it stands, the amount of water being released on an emergency basis—about 31.5 million gallons a day–totals as much as some of the larger recorded phosphate spills to occur in Florida over the past 50 years.
Despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pledge to make HRK Holdings, the current stack owner, responsible, experience has shown that corporations are so well compartmentalized that there are few assets to pursue compared to the cost of the fix. Current and future taxpayers will be footing the bill.
This the latest instance in which the state had to step in to clean up the mess at a gypsum stack after a private company—actually the same private company—declared bankruptcy and bailed.
That involved the Mulberry Phosphates stack that was the source of a catastrophic acidic water spill during a rainstorm in 1997 that killed almost all plant and animal life in the Alafia River between Mulberry and Riverview.
The current releases will not have quite as dramatic an effect, but it certainly isn’t good news for the bay’s health, The damage will continue for who knows how long. I’ve seen no estimate on just how long the pollution of algae-growing phosphorous and nitrogen releases will continue.
If legislators approve the appropriation request and the polluted water is drained from the pond, the stack then has to be capped with impermeable material to prevent additional water buildup, though the typical estimate for all of the water already in the gypsum could take decades to drain away and would have to be collected and threated and taken somewhere.
The current residents’ grandchildren will probably be paying part of the cleanup costs.
This incident also highlights the recent effort to place more federal regulatory oversight of these waste piles because of their potential effects on the health and safety of residents in surrounding communities.
The Piney Point stack, which sits at the edge of a bay and a busy state major highway and near rural homes and county jail is a good example of why better regulations to prevent catastrophes make sense.