The Curse of the Piney Point Phosphate Plant
The Piney Point phosphate plant in Palmetto has been a disaster since it first opened in 1966:
- Built near the southern end of the mouth of Tampa Bay, within a year of its existence its owner was caught dumping waste near some of the bay’s most popular fishing spots.
- In the 1970s, the plant was blamed for a massive algal bloom in Terra Ceia.
- In 1989, a storage tank leaked 23,000 gallons of sulfate, which required an evacuation of the plant.
- In two separate incidents in 1991, the plant released sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide into the air, which killed three workers and created an acid cloud that made 30 people in the surrounding area sick.
- In 2001, after the company that owned the plant declared bankruptcy, walked away and handed responsibility for it to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, a hard rain threatened to overwhelm the plant’s wastewater storage and so the department dumped millions of gallons of toxic water into Bishop Harbor. The cleanup cost the state nearly $140 million.
- Ten years later, a tear in the liner of a gypsum stack threatened to release a catastrophic amount of wastewater. State officials issued an emergency order that allowed the plant to dump 170 million gallons of wastewater into the bay.
- Most recently, in March 2021, a breach in a gypsum stack holding 480 million gallons of toxic wastewater was discovered. Fears of containment failure led state authorities to evacuate homes in the area and dump 215 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Tampa Bay.
“The history of Piney Point has been: Whatever can go wrong, has gone wrong,” says Glenn Compton, the chairman of ManaSota-88, a local environmental advocacy organization. For years, Compton and others have against the state's handling of toxic refuse from the plant.
This week, the DEP announced it has finished constructing a deep well injection site in Manatee County, where the remaining wastewater from Piney Point will be pumped into the aquifer. The pumping will take some time, but officials say the move will close the site for good and remove the threat of future issues with the stored wastewater.
Is the half-century curse over? Or are we going to have to deal with the toxic voodoo of Piney Point forever?
“The longstanding problems at Piney Point must end,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said back in April 2021. “I am directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop a plan to close Piney Point to ensure this never happens again.”
The plan the state came up with is to treat the plant’s remaining wastewater and inject it 3,300 feet underground into a salty part of the aquifer. After the reservoirs are emptied, a plastic liner will cover the poisonous soil so that water cannot accumulate again. So far, $100 million has been set aside for the project, but it will likely cost much more and take a few more years to complete. And even after completion, someone will need to maintain the site for years to come.
If injecting toxic water into the Florida aquifer seems like a risky solution, that’s because it is. While deep well injection is used to deal with wastewater in other parts of the state, the Piney Point injection site represents the first time in history that wastewater from a phosphogypsum stack will be injected into the ground. Compton is skeptical of the solution.
“The only reason why deep well injection is being proposed by Manatee County is because the water is too polluted to discharge to surface waters,” Compton says. “What we can expect is the worst water quality will be injected into the ground and if there are any mistakes made along the way, there’s no way to clean it up. Once an aquifer is polluted, it’s polluted forever.”
Officials have assured the public that the water will be pumped so deep that it will not affect drinking water. "It'll take it about 75,000 years to come through natural filtration to come back up to the surface," Piney Point manager Jeff Barath has said. Compton isn't so sure.
“Once the wastewater is injected, there’s really no 100 percent sure way of [knowing] where it goes after that,” Compton says. “All wells are subject to fail over time. Once a failure occurs, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to correct it or fix it. Just because it’s being injected into saltwater underground doesn’t mean that it won’t migrate and end up going some place in the future.”
The Florida aquifer is a vast, underground system of interconnected caves and caverns moving massive amounts of water that get pushed up into our springs and, subsequently, our homes. In light of recent discoveries at Wakulla Springs of previously unknown passages connecting polluted sinkholes to delicate freshwater springs, I asked Manatee County Commissioner George Kruse if he worried about potential deep well injection fallout.
“For more than 20 years now, we’ve been at a standstill,” Kruse says. “And the unfortunate thing—and the nature of it—is that there is almost no good scenario.”
Kruse initially opposed the deep well injection plan when it was proposed in 2021. He says the community wasn’t making any progress in regards to dealing with the wastewater and instead kept getting anywhere fighting with each other trying to find the perfect solution.
“No scenario was without its downsides,” he says. “Which downside are you willing to take? Doing nothing created a downside. Doing nothing for 20 years is what caused the problem in April of 2021.”
Kruse says that if the Manatee County Commission doesn't act as quickly as it can, and another hole rips in the lining and causes an even worse spill than what occurred in 2021, the public would ask why they didn’t put it down the well in the first place.
“We could have just said, ‘Let’s just break this thing apart right now and let all the water go out into the Gulf and create the single largest red tide event in the history of the world,’" Kruse says. "But in 24 to 36 months, we will be picking up a bunch of dead manatees and dolphins and fish.”
To Kruse, therefore, deep well injection is the least worst option, and it's supported by the state. “The state was pushing for the well,” Kruse says. “And we are fortunate that the DEP, through DeSantis, put up such a sizable nine-figure contribution towards fixing this. The state has effectively taken the responsibility off of our shoulders and we didn’t have to increase taxes on the people of Manatee.”
But Justin Bloom, the former executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper, questions the reasoning behind relying on the state.
“Why is Manatee County exposing itself to this significant risk?” Bloom asks. “This is not a problem of its making. It is incredibly convenient for the DEP to rely on Manatee County to deal with the waste that they should be responsible for.”
Bloom points out that, for decades, the state has mishandled Piney Point. Since the 1990s, the DEP bent rules to allow the phosphate plant to operate despite financial instability and environmental negligence. In 1994, when the stacks at Piney Point were built without a liner designed to prevent waste from seeping into the aquifer, the state fined the company $135,000 for the violation, but would cut that penalty down to just $12,000 a few year later.
Journalist Craig Pittman wrote in a 2003 St. Petersburg Times article that “critics say the Department of Environmental Protection was coddling the company when it should have been protecting the environment. Because of the DEP, ‘these CEOs got their money and left the state holding the bag,’ said state Rep. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.”
Considering the DEP’s track record with Piney Point, Bloom questions the decision to rely on the department’s judgment. “Now you trust the DEP when they say, ‘No problem, Manatee County. Use your groundwater to deal with our problem. It’s OK.’ They need to be a little wary of the pronouncements of the DEP when it comes to what is and what’s not environmentally sound," Bloom says.
So what could have been done?
Compton believes that the right way to deal with the wastewater would have been reverse osmosis. This is what the DEP did in the 2000s to remove 2.3 billion gallons of wastewater from Piney Point. The water was treated and then diffused into the Gulf of Mexico. But that process is more costly and takes more time. Compton believes that deep well injection was chosen because it is cheaper and faster.
Another reason the DEP would want to inject wastewater into the ground is that it avoids federal regulations. Releasing treated wastewater into the Gulf falls under the purview of the Clean Water Act. But if the water is pumped underground, the process falls under the authority of state laws and regulations.
Compton hopes that this will be the first and only time that deep well injection is used to deal with phosphogypsum stack wastewater.
“Deep well injections are more based on good faith effort as opposed to solid data and analysis that has taken place over the years,” he says. Compton’s concern now is that the move has set a precedent. There are 24 other stacks in the state of Florida. Will other phosphate stack sites consider this an alternative way of getting rid of their wastewater? Compton believes we will see similar proposals from the owners of other phosphate stacks wanting to do the same thing as is happening at Piney Point.
Phosphate mining won’t last forever in Florida. Eventually, the mining companies will run out of resources and move overseas. "This is a temporary industry,” Compton says. “It won’t be here in Florida much longer. But what they will leave is a legacy of groundwater pollution throughout our entire state. I expect that we will see problems and Piney Point again the future.”