The unfortunate need to release 270 million gallons of polluted “process water” in early April from the southern phosphogypsum stack at Piney Point is very troubling. The release was deemed necessary by the FDEP to avoid the collapse of the entire pond that would have flooded over 200 homes with a wall of contaminated water.

After the pump out of the millions of gallons of polluted water and a repair to the breach in the eastern wall of the pond with a steel plate, the FDEP announced on April 9th that a complete collapse of the pond had been averted and the releases were stopped.

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP) put together an all hands-on-deck effort to monitor and report the conditions of the released wastewater and the news is not good. The nitrogen level in the wastewater is running at 200+ milligrams per liter (mostly ammonia). That’s 100 times the levels of nitrogen in stormwater and 10 times the level in raw sewage.

While the release of the effluent was stopped weeks ago, Ed Sherwood of the TBEP explained in mid-April that the fate and conversion of this “free” ammonia in the saltwater environment is the main concern. Most plants (algae, macroalgae and seagrass) will likely uptake the diluted ammonia from the direct discharge and the converted nitrate and nitrate in seawater to generate biomass or algal blooms. This process will probably take several weeks which is why the TBEP decided to create a model of the probable circulation patterns of the effluent to try and predict where it might go.

Now as you read this article some three weeks later, the projected flow takes the effluent out of the southern portion of Tampa Bay just north of Anna Maria Island. It is being closely monitored by a FDEP satellite and on-site observers from Manatee County and the State to see if it will go out directly into the Gulf or slide down into the Manatee River and Sarasota Bay. Some algal blooms have already been observed near Port Manatee.

Following Governor DeSantis’ declaration to finally close the Piney Point facility, the State has been tasked to put in place a plan to close the site which includes a deep well disposal system. That’s because the State holds complete jurisdiction over the fate of the facility. On April 20th, the Manatee County Commission approved an $8.5 million construction order with a 10% contingency during the contract period for Youngquist Brothers to construct a 3000-foot-deep injection well to receive the remaining 200 million gallons from the southern stack to close the site. This was done because the County preferred to own and operate the well for complete control of the process rather than turning it over to a private, for profit entity. The contract also calls for further processing of the water to remove more nutrients and pollutants before it is pumped into the injection well. The project is to be completed within 330 days.

As you would expect, there was a great deal of concern and anger expressed by members of the public at the meeting about the ongoing problems at Piney Point and the approach used to close the site. Many were concerned about the possible contamination of drinking water with Florida’s notoriously porous limestone rock. Deep injection wells have always been a very controversial issue. However, various members of the Commission answered the public concerns by explaining there are already over 100 deep injection wells successfully functioning in the state. Only three have experienced cracks and those were detected by monitoring wells before any significant leakage occurred. Secondly, those wells were in the Everglades which has an underlying rock formation that is much less favorable for injection wells than Piney Point. It was also pointed out that there are already four other injection wells successfully functioning in Manatee County. The County is hoping that at least a portion of the $8.5 million will eventually be reimbursed by the State since the expenditure was made to handle a state of emergency.

After consulting with some water quality experts, it was evident that they would have preferred to create a new holding pond to further treat the water and then run it through a flow through marsh to complete the treatment process. Unfortunately, this process is considerably more expensive, requires more land than is available and would take much longer to develop. As a result, under the circumstances, the State felt that it really didn’t have another viable option. As it is, the State is forced to use the public’s money to correct a problem caused by a private business entity.

START will continue to follow this story until we know the ultimate destination of the effluent plume and any resulting harmful algal blooms. In the meantime, please note the Piney Point section in the latest Red Tide Report at the end of this E-Newsletter.

Photo: Aerial view of the stacks at Piney Point

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