Spring Break: Florida Spilling Out Of Control

Will It Take An All-Out Catastrophe To Start Taking Threats To Our Water Seriously?

Florida, we’re looking at you, and I’m so sick of the incompetence and malfeasance. It’s a story as old as time. Industry pollutes and the people pay for it.

Let’s get into it.

For years, we’ve followed the adage that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” But we have reached a point where even large bodies of water can’t possibly dilute the constant barrage of toxins.

Plus, we continue to test the $64,000 question. How can we responsibly manage and dispose of our waste?

Case in point: Piney Point, a former fertilizer manufacturing plant in Manatee County, Florida. It’s been a problem for years, but the 676-acre site is making headlines for efforts this past weekend to prevent the uncontrolled collapse of about 480 million gallons of toxic wastewater.

Florida officials called a state of emergency, issued evacuation notices to more than 300 homes, and closed a major highway in the Tampa Bay area because of a leak at the wastewater reservoir.

Here’s an aerial view of the breach from April 4, 2021:

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said a break was detected last Friday in one of the walls of a 77-acre pond holding millions of gallons of water containing phosphorus and nitrogen. Attempts to plug the hole with rocks and other materials were unsuccessful, so they began discharging this hazardous water (acidic and nutrient-dense) into Port Manatee and the Tampa Bay.

Dumping the wastewater from the reservoir might be a quick fix to avoid an environmental catastrophe, but it will certainly have long term implications for Florida’s shorelines.

Let’s first take a look at the history of this site and these storage facilities.

The plant was built in 1966, producing fertilizer for decades until it was abandoned by Mulberry Corporation in 2001, when the owners declared bankruptcy. But the waste remained in the form of phosphogypsum, a toxic leftover from processing phosphate rock used to make fertilizer. It poses environmental risks, so best practice calls to store it in stacks, often referred to as “gyp stacks.”

In 2006, HRK Holdings, LLC, acquired the site and continued to maintain the toxic materials there. On March 26, HRK reported that process water was bypassing the wastewater management system and officials identified a leak in a containment wall that put the structure at risk for collapsing.

Florida is home to about 25 of these toxic “mountains” full of hazardous phosphate waste. You can’t miss them in an otherwise flat state. They can rise up to 500 feet high, and at the top of each one is a pond of wastewater. These stacks hover above the Floridan aquifer system, which supplies drinking water to 10 million people. We also have about 70 gypsum stack across the U.S.

“Gyp stacks are often and not surprisingly located near poor communities that have little resources to defend themselves against a giant industry,” wrote Brooks Armstrong president of People for Protecting Peace River, an organization working to end the environmental harms of the phosphate fertilizer industry, in an opinion piece for The Tampa Bay Times. “No studies have been done to determine the extent of the health impacts to people living near these piles of phosphogypsum.”

This byproduct material is regulated by the EPA (in the Clean Air Act) for the presence of radium-226, a naturally occurring radioactive substance that produces radon gas, a hazardous air pollutant.

Also of note: In 2020, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler approved a request from The Fertilizer Institute to allow phosphogypsum to be used in government road construction projects. You can’t make this stuff up! What will we do with our toxic waste? Line our roads with it, apparently.

Back to Issues At Piney

For months tears in the liner at Piney Point have been reported along with issues that the site had reached capacity, sparking concerns that the stacks could topple.

Piney Point has two of these stack and the pond of polluted water on one of them has been spilling into a creek that flows into a nearby bay called Bishop Harbor, part of aquatic preserve.  

“Our teams are working around the clock to mitigate risks and ensure emergency preparedness in the area that could experience flooding, should an uncontrolled breach occur. It is clear that this facility must be closed. I want to assure Floridians that we are dedicated to holding HRK accountable for this issue through enforcement action,” DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said.

Noah, we want to hold you to that statement, as local environmental groups like Manasota-88 have been predicting disaster at this plant and others like it for years.

“It should be a surprise to no one that the phosphogypsum stacks at the former Piney Point phosphate plant are in danger of collapsing and causing a catastrophic environmental and economic disaster,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, in a statement. “Florida’s phosphate mining industry is an industry of cradle-to-grave pollution. The cradle is phosphate mining, and the grave is the radioactive phosphogypsum waste dumped into gyp stacks.”

This calamity has been transpiring for decades.

“This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation org dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places, in a statement. “With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than 1 billion tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now. Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production.”

Since the Industrial Revolution, factories and manufacturers have used freshwater sources as a convenient spot to dump their waste. Add on top of that waste from agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, and stormwater runoff, and you can see why we’ve got such huge problems in our water systems.

Environmental Consequences

Predictably, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the water “meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen. It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern.”

Um, hello?! Let’s review what causes harmful algal blooms (HABs) in waterways and why we have seen a 30-fold increase since the 1960s with more than 300 coastal systems impacted and nearly every state in the U.S. experiencing HABs, according to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS). 

The EPA says that nutrient pollution (too much nitrogen and phosphorus) makes the problem worse, leading to more severe and frequent blooms. Other contributors are warm water, water stagnation, and storm water runoff containing pesticide residue from lawns and commercial farms.

I wrote about the double punch of red tide and blue-green algae that contributed to the lost summer of 2018 in Florida in Superman’s Not Coming: “Beaches and other waterways throughout Southwest Florida, which are usually packed with locals and tourists alike, are empty thanks to what many describe as the smell of death near the water.”

In this instance, controlled disposal of this nutrient-rich water into Florida waterways is the equivalent to “dumping 50,000 bags of fertilizer into the bay all at once,” Ed Sherwood, director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program told the Tampa Bay Times.

The pumps might stop the breach for now, but Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes. The future damages will unfold for years to come. Those responsible for this mess must be held accountable.

Action Steps

State Representative Michele Rayner is hosting a virtual town hall tonight (April 7, 6:30 PM) to address the Piney Point wastewater spill. She will be joined by experts and advocates to provide the latest facts on this ongoing situation. I encourage anyone in the area who wants more information to attend.

Piney Point Virtual Town Hall and Q&A

To learn more about phosphogypsum and efforts to protect public health and the environment from its harms, visit: https://phosphogypsumfreeamerica.org.

Continued Reading

Check out these other two other great stories on this topic written by Florida journalist Craig Pittman:

Piney Point threatens Tampa Bay, but other FL estuaries are in trouble, too

The Clock is Ticking on Florida’s Mountains of Hazardous Phosphate Waste

Let’s keep the conversation going. Comment below and let me know what you think about this story and share resources for more action.