U.S. Water News Online
PINEY POINT, Fla. -- The state of Florida is trying to
clean up the Piney Point fertilizer plant, spraying millions of
gallons of wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico to try to avert what
one state regulator calls ``one of the biggest environmental threats
in Florida history.''
State officials knew in 1995 that the owner, Mulberry Corp., was
struggling and if it went under, the state would be stuck with
hundreds of millions of gallons of acidic wastewater in gypsum stacks
on the edge of Tampa Bay.
But according to a review of files by the St. Petersburg Times,
the state didn't act on warnings that the company was in trouble and
didn't do enough to prevent an environmental hazard.
State officials fear the wastewater will spill into Tampa Bay,
destroying plant and animal life for miles.
So this week they plan to treat the waste, load it on a barge, and
spray it into the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated cost of $140
Critics -- including some in the phosphate industry -- say the
Department of Environmental Protection didn't go after the company
``Did they have enough authority to shut Piney Point down? I think
they did,'' said Bob Hugli of the Florida Phosphate Council. ``I
don't know why they waited so long.''
But DEP Deputy Secretary Allan Bedwell said regulators did all
they could under state law.
The plant is in Manatee County, a mile from Bishop Harbor on Tampa
Production of phosphate fertilizer creates a radioactive byproduct
called phosphogypsum, which is stacked into sandy mountains. The
stacks form dikes, creating holding ponds for radioactive water that
is another byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing. Piney Point's two
phosphogypsum stacks -- the walls of the ponds -- are 50 to 70 feet
The biggest potential danger is that heavy rains will overflow the
holding ponds, sending untreated radioactive water into the watershed
that runs into the bay.
When a fertilizer plant is running, the plant reuses the water and
rainfall isn't usually a threat to create a spill. But Piney Point
was idle for much of the 1990s, requiring continuous use of pumps to
keep water at safe levels. If the pumps fail, the water would likely
In 1991, one DEP official suggested going to court to close the
ponds, the newspaper found. But the state didn't. In 1993, new owners
Mulberry took over and promised to restart production, but didn't.
State rules say a stack that sits idle for more than a year should
be closed permanently, the water drained and the top covered. But DEP
never enforced the rule at Piney Point because the company promised
to revive the plant.
Several times the company managed to avoid having to clean up the
stacks, promising to revive production. But by January 2000 Mulberry
had shut down all operations.
A DEP inspection in late December 2000 found Piney Point on the
verge of having its power cut off for nonpayment. No power meant no
pumps circulating the water. Still, DEP did nothing, the paper
DEP attorney Jonathan Alden denied his agency bent rules to allow
the company to keep from cleaning up the stacks despite warnings that
its finances were in bad shape.
In July 2001, after Mulberry's bankruptcy had forced DEP to take
over the cleanup, engineers warned Piney Point couldn't handle a
heavy storm. Then, heavy rain from Tropical Storm Gabrielle inundated
the area, and DEP dumped millions of gallons of waste, with elevated
levels of acid and nitrogen, into Bishop Harbor.
After a tropical storm in 2002 dumped 16 inches of rain, the stack
was closer to spilling its waste water and in January 2003, DEP said
it was considering dumping the waste into the Gulf as the only way to
lower the level before hurricane season filled Piney Point to the
DEP says it's more expensive than just dumping it into the harbor
nearby, because it will carry the water far out into the Gulf and
disperse over a wide area to dilute it.
``DEP is willing to pay a higher price for Gulf dispersion to
protect lives and the environment,'' Bedwell wrote in one document
cited by the paper.
In April, the EPA agreed to dumping the water from barges.
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