At a Glance
- The County Commission approves a plan to eventually empty all reservoirs at the old fertilizer plant.
- In the meantime, pumps are still draining the pond that had a leak.
- Critics oppose the plan to put treated wastewater into the Floridan Aquifer.
With pumps still belching out millions of gallons of wastewater, Manatee County officials have approved a plan they hope will be a permanent solution to the Piney Point phosphate ponds that forced evacuations over catastrophic failure fears.
In Tallahassee, the state Senate on Wednesday approved adding $3 million to the state budget to help with cleanup at Piney Point. That money could be the first part of a proposed $200 million plan to permanently close the site, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The Manatee County Commission unanimously agreed Tuesday to allow an injection well to be built on county property across from the old fertilizer manufacturing site.
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The wastewater remaining in the three retention ponds at Piney Point would be treated and pumped deep into the underground Floridan Aquifer.
“The main thing here is that this water will be cleaned before it’s put down the well,” Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said after the vote. “So we do have a little added protection there for our aquifer.”
The news about the injection well came as officials lifted evacuation orders imposed because of fears the gypsum stack surrounding the wastewater pond could collapse. New models from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicated that danger had decreased substantially, Jacob Saur, Manatee’s public safety director, said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
About 273 million gallons remained in the leaking pond on Wednesday, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. About 165 million gallons of wastewater, which contains phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia, have been pumped into Tampa Bay, the department said.
A team of scientists from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science and the Florida Institute of Oceanography departed from St. Petersburg on Wednesday morning aboard the research vessel Weatherbird II to begin studying the environmental impacts of the discharge, The Oracle reported.
The team will collect water samples, surface sediments and fish from the Port Manatee area and Tampa Bay. It will assess the salinity, oxygen, pH, carbon, bacteria and nutrient levels of the water, but some of those results won't be known for weeks or months, Thomas Frazer, dean of the Marine Science college, told the Oracle.
“Most people understand that the discharge water is a combination of stormwater, so-called dredge water and some legacy process water. It’s fairly saline, it’s high in nutrients, so our chemists are going to be particularly interested in looking at the nitrogen and phosphorus and other nutrients in the system,” Frazer said.
The process water is left over from the manufacturing of fertilizer from phosphate. Fertilizer was made at the Piney Point plant from the mid 1960s until 2001. More recently, the pond was used to store saltwater from a dredging project at Port Manatee. It also contained stormwater runoff and rain.
Many people fear the nutrient-rich wastewater will cause giant algae blooms in Tampa Bay that could cause fish kills and wipe out vital seagrass beds that provide nursery habitat to many species. That's what happened during spills in 2003 and 2011.
"At the current rate of wastewater discharge nearly 500 tons of nitrogen are on track to be released in the course of about a week. This is equivalent to approximately 100,000 bags of fertilizer," a news release from two local environmental groups, Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, claimed.
As of Tuesday morning, 26 pumps and 10 vacuum trucks were sucking water out of the pond that developed a leak last week, the Bradenton Herald reported. They were able to draw out about 23,500 gallons of water a minute.
The plan to inject remaining wastewater at Piney Point into the aquifer is not without critics. Some of them fear the injection well plan would be tried at other phosphate waste ponds in the state, according to the Washington Post. Florida has more than two dozen giant gypsum stacks, built of the mildly radioactive material left after fertilizer is made from phosphate. The wastewater ponds sit at the top of these stacks.
Opponents of the plan also worry the treated water could move into the part of the aquifer that is used for drinking water and irrigating crops.
“The problem with these deep wells is you just don’t know where things will pop up in a generation or so,” Joe McClash, chairman of the Suncoast Waterkeeper group, told the Post. “It’s just like the thinking that got us into this situation to begin with. If people knew then what we know now, they would never have built that plant where they did.”
Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Environmental Protection Department, said the permitting process could take two years or longer, but he indicated the state supports the idea.
Florida state Sen. Darryl Rouson said after the vote to approve the $3 million for cleanup, “We cannot stand idly by while this environmental hazard is dealt with. The funds that we’re appropriating will start us on a pathway to cleaning up what has been recognized as a true mess.”
Senate President Wilton Simpson has said he wants to use up to $200 million of federal pandemic relief money to clean up and close the Piney Point site. The Florida House may vote on the $3 million budget amendment later Wednesday.
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