Port Manatee toxic plumes may require less testing

mjohnson@bradenton.comJanuary 17, 2014 

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Port Manatee is actively monitoring the borders of a potentially toxic site on its property with several testing wells like this one. Under a new agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection, the Port would be subject to less-stringent testing requirements in the event of a toxic spill on its property. MATT M. JOHNSON/THE HERALD

MJOHNSON@BRADENTON.COM Buy Photo

PORT MANATEE -- Toxic spills that impact ground water will likely cost less to monitor at Port Manatee in the near future, but will also have more room to spread.

Next month, port commissioners are expected to sign an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection that will indefinitely designate the port's approximately-1,000-acre property for industrial use only.

Port Manatee will be only the second port in the state to have such an agreement. Jacksonville's port, Jaxport, has already executed a similar agreement. The two ports are in a Florida Department of Environmental Protection pilot program.

Under the designation, the port will no longer be required to monitor the exact extent of a spill's spread or "plume" through groundwater. It will only be responsible for cleaning a spill, assuring that a spill has stopped spreading, and that it has not spread beyond Port property lines.

Currently, the port can be required to adhere to residential standards of cleanup and monitoring that are intended to prevent contamination of drinking water wells. These standards include lower allowable concentrations of contaminants than would be allowed on an industrial site where drinking water is not an issue.

To avoid this, the port must have every spill assessed by the state to have industrial contamination standards applied. The agreement eliminates the need for those assessments. The measure, which is written as a memorandum of agreement between the port and state, was introduced to members of the Manatee County Port Authority at the body's regular meeting Thursday.

The change in testing standards at the port piqued the interest of one environmental group this week. Glenn Compton, chairman of Manasota-88, said that while he hasn't yet learned enough about the agreement to make specific comments, any changes in how toxic plumes are monitored need to favor the protection of groundwater.

"A lot of times it's by pure chance that they even catch the edge of a plume," he said. "Once groundwater is polluted, it's difficult to clean up."

Manasota-88 is involved in other water quality issues adjacent to the port, including those at the site of a former phosphate plant at Piney Point.

The new agreement would not apply to an instance in which a toxic plume spread onto port property from a nearby property. Also, if a plume originating on port property spread beyond its borders, the benefits contained within the agreement would no longer apply, said George Isiminger, the port's senior director of environmental affairs,

Spills that have required monitoring on port property over the years have included oil-stained railroad ballast, a leaking locomotive, and the remnants of a pile of steel shavings.

The agreement would allow the port to do less ground-water sampling, testing, and paperwork in the event of a spill. It also wouldn't have to show the exact extent of a groundwater plume. "We can go farther out," Isiminger said. "If there's no contamination there, we're finished with that part of the sampling."

Isiminger said the agreement makes sense because the port has only limited uses for wells on its property. Saltwater intrusion from the Tampa Bay makes the port's shallow aquifer generally unsuited for drinking, Isiminger said.

The cost of monitoring a spill can be high. One active contamination site -- a grassy, 2-acre spot where a pile of steel shavings was once stored -- has cost the port more than $100,000 since 2002.

Isiminger said spills and the toxic plumes they create in ground water would still require a testing regimen under the agreement. But, once the state is convinced that a plume has stopped spreading, the port would be able to cease tests.

If approved by the Manatee County Port Authority, the testing rule change would come as the state invests in containing runoff from some materials stored on port property. The port authority executed a measure Thursday that will bring in $1.5 million in state Department of Transportation money to partially fund the construction of up to 18 acres of paved outdoor storage.

Dave Sanford, the port's deputy executive director, said the port is looking to convince one of the stevedore companies based at the port to invest an additional $1.5 million in the project. The paving would prevent cargo that could leak fluids or flow into storm runoff from contaminating the ground.

If the port cannot find a private funding partner, it risks having to return the money to the state.

The port's memorandum of agreement is still subject to change. To execute it, the port must spend up to $13,000 on a property title search and validating a 2005 survey of its property.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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