The Manatee County Commission Tuesday okayed a proposal to pump remaining water from the Piney Point gyp stacks into a deep injection well across the road. The measure passed unanimously despite similar proposals failing in the past.
It’s been over a week since a breach at the former Piney Point phosphate plant opened what could be the final chapter of a dangerous saga 20 years in the making. Commissioners finally moved forward on what to do with the more than 700 million gallons of contaminated process water sitting atop the site’s massive phosphogypsum stacks.
They’re putting it underground.
With the threat of environmental disaster still looming, acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said it’s the best route.
“This is in my opinion the most effective way and the most timely way to approach this,” Hopes said.
Fueling the fire beneath the waves
Hopes updated the board on the situation at Piney Point before the vote. He said the breach was mostly under control. More than two dozen pumps were operating to release water at around 23,000 gallons every minute. Hopes said water that escaped through the breach, and subsequently passed through some of the radioactive gyp stack, was either being diverted to another pond or pumped into trucks.
The water from the top, which is not radioactive but does contain pollutants, is what was being pumped into the bay. Hopes said that water seems okay from above.
“No algae, no red tide. There were no dead fish floating on top,” Hopes said. “And so what’s important is what’s going into the Bay is not toxic. It is marine life-sustaining.”
But as Ashley Smyth, a soil and water sciences professor from the University of Florida noted, that’s not exactly how the science works. The water is filled with ammonia, phosphorous and nitrogen, plus other process byproducts. That doesn’t cause Red Tide or algae blooms, so you wouldn’t see one in the pond.
“I think it’s just important to remember that it won’t cause Red Tide,” Smyth said. “But it could help fuel the Red Tide. And I think that’s what people are really worried about.”
But Hopes said crews are also working to clean the water before it goes into the Bay. And, subsequently, underground.
There will still be a few stops before construction can begin on a well, but the motion passed Tuesday allows the initial design phase to begin. Hopes said there’s currently no timeline on construction, but the Department of Environmental protection is streamlining the permitting process.
Designing a well was shut down 8 years ago over a number of problems that remain. One of the main concerns was dumping contaminated water. Hopes said any water being put into the well from all three gyp stacks will be cleaned. And, since it will be built on county property, the commission will have full control.
Gary Reeder is president of the Manatee chapter of the Florida Farm Bureau he told commissioners there are also concerns that the well would become a dump site.
“If we can have the understanding that Manatee County is not gonna be a commercial dumpsite for other entities coming in here, I think we’re gonna be okay with that,” Reeder said. “We’re gonna clean the water, take it down there. It’s the best way to get rid of it. At this point, I’d rather see that than getting it dumped into the Bay.”
Protecting the future
The vote was unanimous, but even in recent months commissioners were hesitant to use the deep well option. But commission chair Vanessa Baugh said the breach changed that.
“The main thing here is that this water will be cleaned before it’s put down the well,” Baugh said. “So we do have a little added protection here for our aquifer.”
Commissioners didn’t vote on it, but said they intend to seal the well once Piney Point is drained.
Agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried visited Piney Point Tuesday and said she wouldn’t’ support a well.
“I have said in the past that I have huge concerns about deep-well injections,” she said. “Especially with doing it this close to the Everglades. So this is something I’m continuing to be concerned about. I don’t think that’s a solution. At all.”
Florida’s aquifer is about 2,000 feet beneath the surface. The well would go beyond that, but concerns remain about unintended environmental consequences. The current state of emergency should free up funds to clean the water and build the well. Florida’s Senate leadership has also said it would use $200 million for the effort. The money would come from the federal COVID-19 relief package.
But speaking to media Tuesday, State Senator Janet Cruz said 20 years is far too long to wait only to have the buck passed to tax payers.
“I am frustrated we are frustrated,” Cruz said. “We have to take taxpayer dollars that we could use somewhere else environmentally and we have to fix mistakes made years ago. But going forward we have to make sure that we don’t have taxpayers on the hook to fix it again.”
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