News And Updates
Published By: Sarasota Herald Tribune
A federal case at Piney Point
Environmental Protection Agency, come on down!
ManaSota-88, a local, nonprofit environmental group, recently made that plea to federal regulators.
Specifically, ManaSota-88 asked the federal EPA's Atlanta office to examine operations at -- and state oversight of -- the phosphate-waste mountains and enormous pools of polluted water at Piney Point.
The formal request seeks an EPA investigation of a 680-acre site in northwest Manatee County.
The hazards of the waste-dumping grounds at Piney Point, adjacent to the site of a former phosphate-processing plant, have been brewing for decades -- even before Bob Barker joined "The Price Is Right" TV show in 1972 and popularized the phrase "come on down!"
Unfortunately, the price of managing and maintaining Piney Point has dramatically risen over the years -- and could increase in the future, unless expert management and vigorous oversight are provided.
Past and present problems
The plant, build in the 1960s, has long been idle and was dismantled. But the legacy of phosphate processing remains. Atop the land are mountains -- at least by Florida standards -- of phosphogypsum, a waste by-product of processing.
The materials in the so-called gyp stacks are useless, acidic and moderately radioactive. The stacks also contain nearly one-half billion gallons of water that contains cadmium, an extremely toxic metal, radium, nitrogen and phosphorus.
Page 2 of 3 Liners were installed in the stacks, in an attempt to prevent leaks. However, in the past, heavy rains or mechanical failures have required extreme responses, such as discharging the polluted water into surrounding areas -- including a state park and an aquatic preserve -- or dumping it in the Gulf of Mexico.
The dumping and discharges were necessary, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said, to avoid even greater threats to the environment and public health.
Recent rainfall -- substantial, but not extraordinary -- provided another reminder of the precarious condition of Piney Point's pools and emergency storage systems.
Fortunately, neither the increased volume of water nor a structural failure led to discharges of polluted water into nearby aquatic preserves. But, as Josh Salman of the Herald-Tribune reported, the amount of water stored on the site has increased to 525 million gallons, nearly double the volume last year. It's encouraging that September's precipitation did not overwhelm the containment system. Yet, if trends continue, the existing capacity will be consumed in 18 months, Salman reported.
There are at least six other reasons to remain worried about the management of Piney Point and its oversight by the DEP:
• HRK Holdings LLC, the landowner which is responsible for cleaning up and managing the site, remains in bankruptcy.
• HRK Holdings continues to miss deadlines, established in its agreements with the DEP, for submitting plans for short- and long-term improvements. This is not the first time; last summer, state regulators cited HRK for failing to adequately maintain the waste mounds.
Page 3 of 3 • The DEP permitted publicly owned Port Manatee to pump waste slurry (a byproduct of dredging that expanded a port berth) into reservoirs in the stacks. This disposal method failed in 2011 when a protective liner ruptured, leading to a large spill of polluted water. (Port Manatee could have dumped the slurry more safely on its property, but doing so would have cost more than the $3.5 million the port agreed to pay HRK to store 1.2 million cubic yards of material in the reservoir. Unfortunately, that money went down the drain.)
• ManaSota-88 questions whether the slurry disposal violated federal hazardous-waste laws; at the least, it was a bad idea that should not be repeated.
The state should consider requiring all gyp stacks across Florida -- there are about two dozen -- to be capped and closed to further activity.
• The criteria used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and relied upon by the DEP, to assess the plan for pumping slurry into the reservoir were inadequate. The reservoir failure occurred even though the design exceeded state and federal regulations; those criteria should be assessed by the EPA to prevent future reservoir failures -- at Piney Point or elsewhere in Florida.
• Oversight of gyp stacks is assigned by law to the EPA, but the federal agency delegated regulatory authority to the state DEP. In other words, the EPA has oversight responsibility as well as the DEP.
No one envies today's DEP as the regulator responsible for Piney Point. The task is great yet the department has fewer resources than in the past. To be fair, $140 million in public funds were spent and some progress was made.
But there is enough doubt as to whether the DEP erred, and there is enough need for additional expertise, to warrant the EPA's intervention.