Piney Point escapes overflow threat, for now

jsalman@bradenton.comAugust 28, 2012 

PALMETTO -- An 11th-hour plan to prevent toxic runoff by diverting contaminated water from Piney Point's abounding reservoirs into an emergency container has worked so far.

At least through Tropical Storm Isaac, that is.

The on-again off-again showers throughout the weekend dumped less than 2 inches of rain onto the gypsum stacks, which gained another 24 inches of temporary capacity during the weekend.

Under approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the embattled owners of the former phosphate plant began funneling some of the contaminated water from Piney Point's main reservoirs into a 77-acre emergency container Saturday afternoon.

HRK Holdings LLC plans to continue the transfers until

water levels in the main reservoirs, which hit full capacity last week, are reduced by 10 feet -- about where they stood two months ago, records show.

"As the owner of the site, HRK has the obligation to address all outstanding violations, including using all financial sources available to it in order to meet its obligation," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email statement.

"The Department will utilize the resources it has available to it, at the appropriate time, to address any imminent threats to public health, safety and welfare, or the environment should HRK not meets its legal obligations."

Already struggling to maintain 13 million cubic yards of highly acidic water on its property, the question now is how HRK can possibly handle more.

Battling Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the firm has yet to submit an approved water management plan for the Piney Point stacks, which last year sent 170 million gallons of toxic water into Bishop Harbor when the liner ripped during a Port Manatee dredging project.

HRK has acquired two loans in the past 60 days to pay its employees through the bankruptcy process.

Eight maintenance deficiencies outlined in a letter from the DEP in June remain unaddressed at the site, including damage to the stacks, ammonia in a nearby ditch and watershed that's still contaminated with dredging sediment.

Company officials told the state they didn't have enough cash to cover those fixes and properly maintain the existing reservoirs. Now, they have another to deal with.

"HRK does not have the financial resources to address the critical conditions that currently exist," HRK CEO Jordan Levy told the state before the new container was filled. He couldn't be reached for further comment Monday.

A plan to remove the water from the emergency container must be submitted to the state by HRK.

The water it houses is considered toxic from its exposure to highly radioactive phosphate waste including ammonia, phosphorus and nitrogen -- all of which have been known to trigger algae blooms that can become deadly for aquatic wildlife.

"They prevented the worst from happening, but we're not out of the ballpark in any way," said Glenn Compton, chairman of the local environmental advocacy group ManaSota-88. "We're still in the middle of hurricane season, and the tainted water they have to deal with now is in two ponds instead of one."

A series of Bradenton Herald reports show last year's toxic spill could have been averted had the state stopped the dredging project when a tear was discovered in the liner months before a similar rupture polluted the harbor. HRK and state officials never notified port staff of any previous problems before the disaster.

The DEP also never applied a commonly used protective dirt cover on the exterior of the gypsum stack, which could have prevented some damage that's believed to have contributed to the rips, reports show.

The DEP has since opened an internal inquiry into its handling of Piney Point.

With two dozen similar gypsum stacks in Florida that also will need to be shut down, Compton fears the state has set a dangerous precedent. He's also lobbying for a better statewide management plan.

Since Mulberry Phosphates abandoned the former fertilizer processing facility in 2001, the state has spent more than $143 million in taxpayer money trying to close Piney Point. At least $15.8 million worth of cleanup remains.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service