Manatee commission closer to solution as Piney Point contamination keeps Tampa Bay on brink of disaster

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Aerial shot shows the NClear Georgia treatment site similar to one that could be used to clean water at the Piney Point Reservoir. YouTube.

Manatee County Commissioners met Tuesday to consider possible remedies for the nearly 750 million of contaminated process water sitting at the Piney Point Reservoir near Port Manatee and the shores of Tampa Bay. The site’s capacity is rapidly decreasing with less than 11 inches of rain standing between it and an environmental disaster for Tampa Bay.

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When commissioners received an update on the site in September, representatives of HRK, the company that manages the site warned of impending doom if there was no action. At the time, the site was still capable of handling 19 more inches of rain fall. As of last week, that number was down to 10.7 inches.

‘Action is needed. Now.’

Jeff Barath of HRK manages the site. He said the company has done all it can to maintain the site since taking over a decade ago. But increased rainfall year over year is overwhelming the site’s ponds, along with seepage at the ground level.

“Based on our current water volumes, action is needed,” he said. “Now”

The phosphate plant might be closed, but contaminated water at the site has sat collecting year after year. Just south of the Hillsborough-Manatee County line, Manatee commissioners have kicked the can down a road to near ruin. Commission chair Vanessa Baugh said that’ll be the case no more. This year, she said Piney Point is the top priority.

Current status of contaminated water at the Piney point Reservoir

“Piney Point. It’s always the same thing,” Baugh said. “‘Well, you know we’re getting near the top and it’s gonna happen and where in dire needs and we’ve got to do it now.’ It’s always the same thing. But yet, this board for 18 years really didn’t want to be, I think the term was ‘it’s not our problem.’ Well, it is our problem. It’s in Manatee County. It is our problem.”

Barath said numerous studies have been done to come up with solutions on how the water can be cleared and the site finally shut for good. Eight solutions were found, but only four were seen as viable. Most would work best in conjunction with one another.

Solutions

The first is spray evaporation.

That’s already underway. Barath said it can handle the nearly 60 inches of annual rainfall, but doesn’t do anything to stop infiltration from seepage. Plus, the evaporation doesn’t clean the water so the what’s left has higher concentrations of contaminates.

Then there’s distribution to the Manatee sewer system. That starts in March. Pre-treated water, 50,000 gallons of it, will be pumped from Piney Point to the county’s sewage system every day. The ph balance and water chemistry will be monitored and the County will have access to a shutoff valve, but 50,000 gallons a day isn’t nearly enough to drain the ponds.

The most effective ways to get rid of the water seemed to be either a deep injection well or cleaning the water and releasing it into lower Tampa Bay.

‘A needle of heroin into Mother Earth’

For years, commissioners and county residents have paused at the idea of a well.

“Deep-well injection. Absolutely not,” county resident Glenn Javinas said during public comment. “It’s like putting a needle of heroin into Mother Earth.”

The well would dump partially treated water 3,500 feet beneath the surface where it could filter over thousands of years before reentering the potable water supply. But it’s an imperfect science and the long-term effects can’t be fully known.

What commissioners had hoped for was a way to remove contaminates and release cleaned water into the Bay. But technology just wasn’t there. But it might be now.

Tech company NClear said it has the tech to remove more than 99 percent of phosphorous and ammonia from the water. Proprietary technology TPX removes phosphorous which could be recovered and recycled and ElectrX removes ammonia and converts it to nitrogen gas.

CEO Mike Mies it’s already using it on a similar scale in Georgia.

“This is really an identical system to what we would produce here,” he said.

Mies said NClear could clean about 400,000 gallons of water a day. With the 50,000 gallons going to the County, Mies said the site would be drained within five years.

‘A no brainer

Mies said the project would cost about $12 million if NClear provides its tech and support to HRK. But if NClear handles the project on its own, it could get going quicker. That’d mitigate potential environmental disaster sooner, but cost about $1.5 million more.

Manatee is expected to contribute $6 million to the project with the state matching. Constructing and moving water to a well would be around the same price. It’d take longer to start, but could be completed quicker.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore remained unsure of NClear.

“Anything that’s going to the Bay, I’m not gonna support it,” she said.

But most of the seven-person board seemed in favor of the NClear option. Board Chair Baugh said after nearly a decade of serving on the commission, she’s happy technology has finally caught up to the board’s hopes.

“To me, it’s a no brainer. Why would you not clean this water rather than take a chance on putting contaminated water down near our aquifer,” Baugh said. “It makes no sense. I for one am thrilled there’s a solution we can do.”

Having completed the work session, commissioners will next vote on how to proceed during a regular meeting.

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