1. Welcome to SportsJournalists.com, a friendly forum for discussing all things sports and journalism.

    Your voice is missing! You will need to register for a free account to get access to the following site features:
    • Reply to discussions and create your own threads.
    • Access to private conversations with other members.
    • Fewer ads.

    We hope to see you as a part of our community soon!

Looming ecological disaster in Tampa Bay

Discussion in 'Sports and News' started by 2muchcoffeeman, Apr 4, 2021.

  1. 2muchcoffeeman

    2muchcoffeeman Well-Known Member

    It’s not “if,” it’s “when.” And “when” is right soon.

    PALMETTO — Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Manatee County on Saturday as officials fear an “imminent” collapse at the old Piney Point phosphate plant could release a rush of polluted water into the surrounding area — and then into Tampa Bay itself.

    The situation grew more dire as crews attempted to shore up a breach in a wall around a 480-million gallon wastewater reservoir that has been leaking for days. They used front-end loaders, excavators and dump trucks to pile dirt over the breach.

    But at 10:30 a.m. Saturday the on-site engineers “deemed the situation to be escalating,” said Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur. One containment wall shifted to the side, he said, signaling a structural collapse could happen at any time.

    An “immense amount of water” could rush out in a sheet within seconds or minutes if berms at the site crack wide open, said acting county administrator Scott Hopes.

    The flood could be several feet high and move through the immediate area, he said, before it would flow toward the bay, where environmental advocates fear it could pose consequential harm to the ecosystem.
    “If you have not evacuated please do so,” he told residents of the surrounding area. “We in the county are doing everything we can to mitigate the risk.”​

    Evacuations expand as Manatee phosphate plant collapse ‘imminent’

    More details from the Bradenton Herald:

    The call that Manatee County leaders feared most came Friday. They learned that a leaking pond holding contaminated water at a former phosphate plant started to collapse.

    A building environmental crisis began to spin out of control. First responders and engineers worked feverishly overnight to fill the breached gypsum stacks at Piney Point, an industrial site on the edge of Tampa Bay.

    But it wasn’t enough. By Saturday, the possibility of an environmental disaster in Florida inched closer with the imminent collapse of a radioactive stack and the possibility of flooding from about 400 million gallons of polluted water.

    On Saturday afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency to clear the way for resources that could be needed, such as additional pumps and cranes. The first call for evacuations went out Friday evening and continued into Saturday.

    “The risk that we’re dealing with right now is an uncontrolled release,” Acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said Saturday.

    “There’s a very thick liner — think of it as a soft swimming pool. [The engineers] rightly identified that that leak was in the base of the southeast corner of that pool, so now what you see is, you see that opening,” he said. “If that liner continues to unzip — because it’s probably at a seam — when that opens up, you will see the crevice where the breach has occurred continue to unzip and break that rock away.”

    Crews are working to block the flow of polluted water flowing from the pond. And they are bringing in additional pumps that can send more water directly into Tampa Bay. Hopes said the idea is to put as much of that water into the bay to lessen the impact of a flood in case of a full breach.​

    About that water:

    An environmental disaster has loomed at Piney Point for decades. It began in 1966 when Borden Chemical, a spin-off of the milk company with Elsie the Cow, built an industrial plant to process phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilizer.

    Since then, the site has housed a steadily growing amount of contaminated material that’s now in danger of spilling into Tampa Bay.

    HRK Holdings, LLC, acquired the Piney Point site in 2006 and has taken responsibility for disposal of the contaminated material. The company operates the property as an industrial site for lease. Several warehouses are on the southern rim of the property.

    Even though phosphate processing plant became inactive in 2001, the large holding ponds collected millions of gallons of rainfall, adding to the problem.

    Officials have said for years that the main danger at Piney Point is the amount of process water held on the site. Process water is a chemical byproduct of phosphate mining that is rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and ammonia. Because those nutrients can affect local water quality, that water must be cleaned before it is released. The leaking pond contains uncleaned water.
    Three ponds of process water sit at Piney Point, located across the street from Port Manatee near the southern border of Hillsborough County. Each pond sits above a lined stack of phosphogypsum, another byproduct of phosphate processing.

    The phosphogypsum stacks form a large hill — the highest elevation point in Manatee County — on the 676-acre Piney Point site. A collapse of the stacks would send the process water rushing into surrounding properties, including highway U.S. 41, Port Manatee and industrial warehouses in the area. The evacuation order that at first covered a couple dozen homes within a mile of the site is being expanded to another 300 households, according to the Manatee County Public Works Department.

    The uncontrolled release of the water is a wide-ranging disaster that may take weeks or months to fully understand. Local officials said their primary concern was to assist and protect people who live in the immediate area.​

    The impact could destroy the Tampa Bay estuary environment.

    Piney Point sits less than three miles from three important waterways — Tampa Bay, Bishop Harbor and Cockroach Bay. No matter which way a collapse spills, the water is bound to drain into those waterways, polluting aquatic resources with nutrient-rich water that could lead to a harmful algae bloom.

    Environmentalists have pointed to research that shows how the spill of that nutrient-rich process water is likely to have an impact on the environment. Many fear it could lead to red tide algae blooms that affect public health and local tourism.

    Those concerns aren’t unfounded. In 2011, a tear in the liner on the gypsum stack sent 170 million gallons of process water into Bishop Harbor, an Outstanding Florida Water that has special environmental protections.​


    They’re desperately draining the contaminated water and claim to be more secure now, according to the Herald, but they’re still draining poisonous water directly into the bay. Maybe now they’ll deal with it instead of kicking the can down the road like they have for decades.
  2. 2muchcoffeeman

    2muchcoffeeman Well-Known Member

  3. Jake from State Farm

    Jake from State Farm Well-Known Member

  4. Mngwa

    Mngwa Well-Known Member

    I've read that though they're evacuating people, they're not opening shelters. So, if you don't have family or friends to bunk with, I guess you have to pay for a hotel.
  5. playthrough

    playthrough Moderator Staff Member


    Phosphate mining used to be huge in Polk County, next to Manatee County, and the land from some out-of-commission mines was turned into Streamsong golf resort, one of the top golf resorts in the country.
  6. I Should Coco

    I Should Coco Well-Known Member

    Ugh, sounds like an impending disaster that's been waiting to be addressed for years ... but hasn't. Quite a few of those around the U.S., unfortunately.

    "Just dump it in the ground" or "just dump it in the river" was our industries' solution to waste management for a long time.
  7. goalmouth

    goalmouth Well-Known Member

    Fuck that Florida governor.

    Fuck him.
  8. Neutral Corner

    Neutral Corner Well-Known Member

    I was born in Tampa, and I have childhood memories of some of the most beautiful places in Florida. I can't express how much this impending disaster saddens and depresses me.

    It's bad enough paving over the state and building highrise condos on every decent beach, but the way that industry has treated that biome is an outright crime that virtually no one will ever be held responsible for.
  9. maumann

    maumann Well-Known Member

    Piney Point is less than five miles from our winter RV park. Not good to hear "Buffalo Road," "Moccasin Wallow" and "U.S. 41" on the national news.

    I will say most of the surrounding area is heavy industrial or scrub, with only Port Manatee, the Manatee County Jail (!) and a few farms in the immediate vicinity. But there is a fancy subdivision on Moccasin Wallow that could be in the path of the dam break, depending upon the direction of the water flow, terrain and low-lying areas.

    The Manatee Sanctuary is farther up 41, next to the power plant.
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2021
  10. 2muchcoffeeman

    2muchcoffeeman Well-Known Member

    Opened in 1966. First crisis? 1967.

    This St. Petersburg Times article is from 2003. First I’ll post the TL;DR version of events, then give y’all some reading material to back it up.

    DEP turns a blind eye
    Here's how the state Department of Environmental Protection bent the rules for the Piney Point phosphate plant:
    • Gypsum stacks that sit idle for more than a year are supposed to be permanently closed. Piney Point's stayed open for years.
    • Phosphate companies are required to file annual audited financial statements. Instead, the company submitted unaudited statements and DEP did nothing for months.
    • A DEP inspection in late December 2000 found that Piney Point hadn't paid its electric bill and was on the verge of having its power cut off. DEP inquired but did not act.
    Spreading it in the gulf
    Since being abandoned in January 2001, the condition of the Piney Point fertilizer plant has grown increasingly worse. The gypsum stacks (radioactive waste from making fertilizer) holding 1.2-billion gallons of wastewater are in danger of spilling into Tampa Bay. The state received permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to dump treated wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico to avoid an environmental disaster in Tampa Bay if a hurricane strikes.​

    And now the journalism.

    The warning signs were clear: The Piney Point fertilizer plant was headed for disaster.

    State regulators knew in 1995 that the owner, Mulberry Corp., was struggling. If it went under, the state would be stuck with hundreds of millions of gallons of highly acidic wastewater in towering gypsum stacks perched on the edge of Tampa Bay.

    A review of hundreds of files by the St. Petersburg Times found that the state, instead of intervening, bent the rules by not closing the gypsum stacks as the law requires and by not acting on warnings that the owner was in financial trouble.

    A bad situation soon become dangerous. State officials finally took control in 2001 – after the owner walked away.

    Phosphate executives say the state was too slow to act.

    "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."

    Critics say the Department of Environmental Protection was coddling the company when it should have been protecting the environment. Because of DEP, "these CEOs got their money and left the state holding the bag," said state Rep. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

    DEP officials deny they gave Piney Point any breaks. They say state law tied their hands.

    "We did all we could do under the existing phosphate regulations," DEP Deputy Secretary Allan Bedwell said while touring the plant last month.

    After the takeover, DEP officials underestimated the urgency of the cleanup and relied on untested technology that has not lived up to expectations.​

    This is about the gypsum stacks that y’all will hear a lot about:

    A subsidiary of Borden, the milk company, built the plant in 1966. Within a year Borden was caught dumping waste into Bishop Harbor. More dumping occurred in February 1970, creating a series of fish kills that extended through the summer.

    The plant changed hands at least four times. No matter who owned the place, toxic leaks sickened workers, killed cattle and drove neighbors from their homes.

    The one constant: mountains of radioactive waste that grew to tower over the landscape.

    Factories producing fertilizer from phosphate also churn out a radioactive byproduct called phosphogypsum. To dispose of it, the phosphate industry stacks it up into white sandy mountains. Piney Point’s two phosphogypsum stacks – gyp stacks for short – are 50 to 70 feet high.

    Making fertilizer requires lots of water. As it comes out of the factory the water is hot and as corrosive as battery acid. First it goes into cooling ponds, where some evaporates. Then it's pumped to the top of the stacks. Rainfall adds millions of gallons more, but an active plant can reduce that with reuse and evaporation.

    The stacks at Piney Point were built with no liner underneath, allowing waste laden with radium and heavy metals to seep into the underground aquifer. In 1994 DEP fined the company $135,000 for the contamination, but agreed over three years to whittle that down to $12,000.​

    Closing the mine made things worse.

    Every gyp stack in Florida is a ticking time bomb. If the water gets too high, disaster results.

    Federal rules require owners to make sure that if an exceptionally hard rain falls, the dikes won't overflow. If the water creeps too high, the owners are supposed to treat it with lime, then dump enough in the nearest waterway to drop it to the safe level.

    In the past decade, Piney Point was one of two stacks where that happened. In 1998, DEP allowed millions of gallons to flow into Bishop Harbor.

    When a fertilizer plant is running, the gyp stack water is easy to control. The plant reuses the water, heating it up. The amount lost to evaporation usually balances out any gains from rainfall.

    But Piney Point was idle for most of the 1990s, so there was little evaporation. Maintaining safe water levels in an idle gyp stack requires crews running pumps 24 hours a day. If the pumps stop, Piney Point's tainted water would likely overflow the ponds, spilling into Tampa Bay.

    During a Piney Point bankruptcy in 1991, a DEP official worried that the stacks might not be maintained anymore. Sam Zamani, a phosphate regulator in DEP's Tampa office, suggested to his superiors that the state file a court claim for $10-million to close the stacks permanently.

    Instead the state waited. In 1993 a new owner took over. Led by investors Judas Azuelos and Philip Rinaldi, Mulberry Corp. promised to resurrect the plants. It didn't happen.

    State rules say a stack that sits idle for more than a year should be closed permanently, the water drained off, the top covered. Yet DEP officials never enforced the rule at Piney Point because the company promised to revive the plant.

    In 1995, state officials drew up new rules requiring gyp stack owners to pass an annual financial test. Flunk and the state would refuse permits. The test was based on the cost of closing the stack, though not the millions to dispose of the water.

    Even so, DEP employee Phil Coram noted then that Mulberry Corp. would probably flunk the new test, calling the company "problematic in terms of providing financial responsibility."

    More than once in the late '90s, DEP let Mulberry executives postpone for months filing their audited financial statements, giving them time to cut deals that made them appear viable.

    By January 2000, the illusion of viability had vanished. Mulberry executives told creditors that they had shut down all operations. Still DEP officials did nothing, baffling phosphate industry officials.

    "We were not surprised they failed," CF Industries executive Stephen Wilson wrote DEP later, "and would like to understand how they could possibly have met the present financial responsibility standards."

    State records show DEP bent the rules.

    In April 2000, Mulberry senior vice president Robert Stewart wrote to DEP's top mining regulator, Joe Bakker, conceding his company had laid off employees and stiffed creditors. So Stewart was "all the more appreciative of the fact that your group has been working with us during these difficult times ..."

    Stewart wrote that he gave Bakker financial statements showing Mulberry passed the test. No auditor checked Mulberry's statements.

    "You indicated that the use of the unaudited statements was most likely acceptable to the DEP as long as certified financials were forthcoming," Stewart wrote Bakker.

    Stewart promised to submit audited statements by June. Months passed. In December 2000, DEP notified Mulberry it would lose its permit. The company was just weeks from bankruptcy.

    DEP attorney Jonathan Alden denied his agency bent the rules or agreed to accept the unaudited financial statements. He said DEP staff had "continual conversations" with Mulberry executives about getting the audited statements, though a Times search of DEP files in Tallahassee and Tampa turned up no records of such conversations.

    Initially the DEP, mindful of the Alafia River spill, focused on the Polk County stacks, where the water levels were too high. Piney Point seemed safe.

    In July 2001, though, engineers warned that Piney Point couldn't handle a heavy storm. A three-year drought had kept the stacks from overflowing.

    Had DEP taken over Piney Point before 2001, the drought might have given the state time to close the stacks. The drought ended shortly after the takeover, though, and in the fall Tropical Storm Gabrielle inundated the area.

    With too much water in the stacks, DEP turned to the same solution Borden had used: It dumped millions of gallons of waste, with elevated levels of acid and nitrogen, into Bishop Harbor in late 2001.

    Nobody knew, not even the DEP staff at the aquatic preserve. But when local officials found out, they complained the dumping was ruining Tampa Bay.​

    Which one? You have lots of choices from both parties, and many more people than those governors have kicked this can down the road. All the current one did was inherit the interest accrued from 55 years of world-class fuck-ups regarding the phosphate industry in general and this project specifically.

    Kudos to officials in Manatee County who are actually draining the stacks with the intent to cap them — they’re the first officials at any level to do anything about the problem other than wring their hands and give public statements of concern.
  11. micropolitan guy

    micropolitan guy Well-Known Member

    But there is a fancy subdivision on Moccasin Wallow that could be in the path of the dam break, depending upon the direction of the water flow, terrain and low-lying areas.

    Then the problem finally might get some attention, since DeSantis seems to care only about wealthy Floridians.
    lakefront likes this.
  12. 2muchcoffeeman

    2muchcoffeeman Well-Known Member

    Just so everyone is clear on the concept, here’s a gypsum stack (we remind you that phosphogypsum is mildly radioactive). This one’s in Louisiana, it’s 200 feet tall, and it’s owned by Mosaic Fertilizer (which also mines phosphates in Manatee County and elsewhere in Central Florida). It’s known to be shifting around and the EPA was pushing for this one to be drained in 2019.


    Florida’s stacks are tall, too. This is not Piney Point (it’s near Fort Meade in Polk County), but is representative:


    Piney Point is next to Tampa Bay in the same way that your fork is next to your dinner plate. Pardon the spelling; I lifted this next image from a sport-fishing board.


    So that’s the mess that’s just now being dealt with.
    Hermes and Slacker like this.
Draft saved Draft deleted

Share This Page