INSIGHT: Toxic reservoir breach avoided at shuttered Florida fertilizer plant, but situation remains serious

Author: Annalise Porter

2021/04/13

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Emergency measures have been taken at an abandoned fertilizer site in Manatee County, Florida, after a reservoir breach leaked millions of litres of toxic wastewater into Tampa Bay and an uncontrolled breach was feared.

A reservoir containment leak was discovered on 26 March at the former Piney Point phosphates facility, which holds water toxic enough to kill fish and cause algae blooms. Wastewater from the reservoir is leaking into Piney Point Creek, of which Tampa Bay is the outfall. Though the plant itself has been shuttered for two decades, the wastewater reservoirs and phosphogypsum stacks remain on-site.

Prior to the leak’s discovery, there were 480m gal (1.82m litres) of water in the damaged section of the reservoir. According to state officials, as of 11 April there were 217m gal left. The rest had either leaked or been purposely released into the Bay to avoid an uncontrolled breach of the whole reservoir section.

MITIGATION EFFORTS BY STATE, NATIONAL AGENCIES
The Florida governor declared a State of Emergency for the county. State agencies and the National Guard initially coordinated efforts to stop the breach, including releasing controlled amounts of the contaminated water and airlifting pumping equipment in to help.

“At the division, we are sending every resource at our disposal to the site by truck, crane and helicopter. We have already deployed 20 pumps, 10 vacuum trucks and more than 100,000 bottles of water, with more on the way,” Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) Director, Jared Moskowitz, said in a statement early on in mitigation efforts.

On 5 April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers arrived to assist the state agencies. Water infrastructure and flood control both fall under the Army Corps jurisdiction.

Initially, water quality had not been monitored as it went into the ocean and Manatee Port. Monitoring was started on 30 March, but results are not immediately available - there is a multi-day delay. Levels of chorlorphyl-a, fertilizer nutrients and pH began to increase in Tampa Bay near a conservation area and ecological park, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). New algae blooms became visible as well, which have already been a toxic, ongoing concern in the state.

At least 215m gal had been discharged into the ocean as of 11 April.

RISK OF UNCONTROLLED BREACH LESSENS
According to state officials, local groundwater wells were not in danger of being contaminated by the leak. Multi-day evacuation orders and highway closures in the area started to lift the evening of 6 April, as fears of a completely uncontrolled breach lessened.

On 9 April, discharges had decreased and were confined to the facility’s lined storm water management system, no longer leaving the premises. Heavy rain and wind in the area added 5m gal of precipitation to the reservoir shortly after, backsliding the process. A steel plate repair was ongoing to fix a separated seam, which was identified by divers with underwater cameras.

"This is a response that spans across all levels of government. We are committed to ensuring this is the last chapter of the Piney Point story and holding HRK accountable," said FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein.

HRK Holdings is the current owner of the reservoir. The facility has been of concern in Florida for years after Mulberry Corporation abandoned it in 2001. After five years, HRK took over the facility from the DEP.

“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,” Valenstein said.

HISTORY OF CONTAMINATION, CRITICISM OF HANDLING
Environmental groups have long criticized the state’s handling of the facility, not just the holdings company. Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and Suncoast Waterkeeper released a joint statement on the situation that calls for phosphate ore processing moratoriums, state-funded removal of toxic fertilizer waste, and enhanced water and wildlife monitoring.

“This disaster was preventable. Permit conditions were ignored, water accumulation was not addressed when state funds were available to remedy the conditions,” the groups said in a statement, also inculpating that FDEP knew the site’s reservoirs had become dangerously full as early as 2013.

“The release of 480 million gallons of this wastewater does the damage of or is equivalent to approximately 28 years of population growth in the Tampa Bay Estuary, in the span of about a week. This violates the goals established to protect the public resources used for recreational and commercial activities,” the two organizations said.

The national Center for Biological Diversity has requested a congressional investigation and hearing regarding the incident.

The plant’s origins lie with Borden Chemical Company in 1965, when ore processing started at the site. Ownership eventually transferred to AMAX, then to Consolidated Minerals Inc, then to Royster, and finally Mulberry Phosphate. At least three of these companies dealt with environmental-related fines by the state, according to research by the University of South Florida St Petersburg.

Mulberry Phosphate filed for bankruptcy with only 48-hours’ notice to FDEP in 2001, leaving more than a billion gallons of wastewater behind. FDEP suggested diluting and spraying the water into the Gulf of Mexico, but that plan was turned down due to United Nations regulations.

Water in the reservoir has risen to urgently high levels and required emergency releases more than once over the years.

Insight by Annalise Porter