Deep well at Piney Point: Best solution or too risky?

mjohnson@bradenton.comMay 11, 2014 

MANATEE -- A Manatee County plan to pump potentially billions of gallons of industrial wastewater to the bottom of a 3,500-foot well is rife with controversy, as opponents say there's too much risk that it will taint the region's irrigation and drinking water supply, while proponents tout it as the answer to keeping the bay and other area waterways free from pollution.

One week remains for the public to comment on the construction of an injection well designed to eliminate contaminated water at the former Piney Point Phosphates fertilizer plant. And opponents, supporters and regulators are considering the long-term effects of a disposal method that has been linked to contamination of nearly 100 other water sources around the nation.

Officials with the county and the state's Environmental Protection Agency say any threat to the water supply can be managed with good engineering and favorable geology. In their opinion, a huge well is the best hope for cleaning up the abandoned fertilizer manufacturing facility, which polluted Bishop Harbor in 2011. County officials also consider it a potential business and income generator.

Opponents point to tens of thousands of violations at injection sites across the United States as an indicator of risk for the proposed well. They also question whether engineers designing the well can know enough about deep earth geology to guarantee that contaminated water pumped under the aquifer will stay entombed forever.

Manatee County farmers are particularly concerned. Many of them see the well as a threat to the groundwater they use to irrigate the crops that contributed to a farm economy a recent study valued at $2.36 billion.

"We're definitely not sold on putting this contaminated water down our aquifer," said Gary Reeder, president of the Manatee County Farm Bureau.

The plan for a deep injection well at the former Piney Point Phosphates facility has been in the works since 2012. It is one of three injection wells the county plans to build in the Port Manatee area. Two shallower wells to be built on port property and designated as aquifer recharge wells would pump treated municipal wastewater into the ground. The recharge wells are being considered on a permit application separate from that for the deep injection well.

The county has estimated the three wells and related infrastructure will cost more than $25 million.

Manatee County is already home to nine injection wells, with usage varying from disposing of treated wastewater to storing freshwater for municipal use, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Most are designated by the U.S. Environmental Agency as Class V injection wells, which are similar to the proposed, 1,100-foot deep municipal wastewater wells. Manatee County owns and operates seven of those injection wells, including one in Cortez that is identical to the controversial deep well from a regulatory point of view.

The deep well proposed for the Piney Point facility, designated by the EPA as Class I, would be permitted for the disposal of non-hazardous industrial waste. Manatee County has plans to not only use it for the Piney Point cleanup, but to dispose of brine from a planned reverse osmosis water plant and wastewater from industrial manufacturers in Manatee County.

Even though studies have found contaminants in the Piney Point water, including beryllium, cadmium, sodium, iron and arsenic, DEP says the levels of those contaminants are not considered hazardous or toxic.

Additional wells planned

More Manatee County injection wells may be on the way. In addition to the county's permit applications for the three new wells, DEP issued a draft permit two weeks ago for two Class V wells to be built at Tropicana's Bradenton manufacturing plant.

Above-average rainfall over the past four years has strained the county's ability to rid itself of treated or "reclaimed" wastewater. The problem is particularly pronounced at the North Regional Water Reclamation Facility. That facility treats water from Memphis Road to the northern border of Manatee County.

According to Jeff Goodwin, the county's wastewater division manager, and Mike Gore, director of the county's utilities department, the county went with a three-well solution when the local geology proved to be "not favorable from a permitting perspective" for a single deep well. CH2M Hill engineers said the rock at the bottom of the deep well lacked the capacity to absorb the combined wastewater flow.

Whether the wells are permitted depends on the next steps of the state approval process. The county applied for the permits last November. Notice of issuance of draft permits was published in early March. The DEP will review public comments on the permits after the comment period closes on May 16. After that, DEP officials will decide whether to publish an "intent to issue" notice.

The public would have one last opportunity to stop the permitting process, a 14-day period in which DEP could be petitioned to hold an administrative hearing concerning the project. If no petition is filed, DEP would issue permits.

It is the proposed Class I well -- which would accept more than a half billion gallons of Piney Point wastewater and future industrial wastewater in the first year -- that has drawn criticism since a public meeting April 16 gave the project its biggest airing to date. A second public hearing is planned at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. Of greatest concern among critics is what will happen to the groundwater supply if the well ruptures or if injected waste finds its way into the county's freshwater aquifer.

Officials with DEP say injection is the safest, most permanent way to get rid of water they characterize as neither toxic nor hazardous, but too damaging to pump into rivers and Tampa Bay. But the wells will only get agency sign-off if an engineering analysis based on information from test wells shows that deep layers of limestone and clay will keep the waste in place, said Phil Coram, a DEP official who has worked as a contract manager for the Piney Point cleanup.

"It's our expectation that we'll only issue the permits if the injected water will stay where it's supposed to stay," Coram said.

If approved, the county's wells would join an estimated 240 Class I and 14,000 Class V wells across the state. The deep well would be one of 680 Class I wells in the nation, according to 2012 EPA data. Nationwide, an estimated total of nearly 850,000 injection wells pump and contain everything from fresh water to oil industry byproducts and hazardous waste, according to EPA estimates. It has been illegal to dump hazardous waste down an injection well of any category since 1983.

Piney Point's ills

State and county officials say the primary reason to build a Class I well at the former Piney Point facility is to dispose of nutrient- and salt-contaminated water. While the water could be treated through reverse osmosis or other methods that separate the water from contaminants, Coram said the well solution is the only one that doesn't create a byproduct that has to be disposed of in another way.

If built, the Class I well will send industrial wastewater 2,000 to 3,500 feet underground. At the minimum depth, the wastewater will end up about 1,200 feet beneath the local aquifer. Engineers designing the well say hundreds of feet of limestone and clay will prevent the waste from leaching upward into groundwater that is used for drinking and irrigation.

The well is expected to pump about 1 to 2 million gallons a day of water contained in the gypsum stacks into a layer of rock that contains salty, undrinkable water. That volume is planned to continue for more than a year. After surface water is drained from the gypsum stacks, the well will still receive about 150 gallons a minute for up to 30 years to clear drain systems under the Piney Point gypsum stacks.

Wastewater is expected to flow into pores between rock and sediment at the bottom of the well. Engineers hired by the county predict the waste will spread across a diameter of about .4 of a mile during the first 10 years of pumping. A test well to be drilled near the Class I well will be used to determine whether any waste has leaked out of the well or into the water table.

Years of cleanup

The cleanup at the several hundred-acre facility started in 2001 when Piney Point Phosphates notified DEP that it was abandoning the site. Shortly thereafter, its parent company, The Mulberry Corp., declared bankruptcy. The DEP stepped in to oversee and regulate cleanup.

In relating a history of the cleanup at Piney Point, DEP officials said the wastewater left behind is neither toxic, nor hazardous. Coram said the biggest problem with the wastewater -- which was used in the phosphate production operation -- is its high nitrogen and phosphate content. Those compounds can cause algae blooms associated with die-offs of sea life.

Results of third-party water testing at the site in 2012 show the other contaminants that DEP says are at levels not considered hazardous or toxic.

In the aftermath of the closure, a court-appointed receiver overseen by DEP went onsite to "manage the environmental threat" posed by contaminated water stored inside the gypsum stacks. Gypsum stacks are disposal sites for a slurry of water and phosphogypsum solids produced during the fertilizer manufacturing process. Over time, those sites built into hills containing small ponds.

At Piney Point, those ponds were dredged and the solids were used to build dikes at the edges of the stacks. The resulting reservoirs were used to store the slurry. Stacks as high as 90 feet cover about 400 acres at the site.

When a court-appointed receiver arrived at the Piney Point property, the stacks had high water levels from slurry dumping and rainfall. To bring those levels down and avoid a potential dike breach, the receiver disposed of 2.5 billion gallons of the water by methods including spray evaporation, barging the water into the Gulf of Mexico and trucking to active fertilizer manufacturers for use in their industrial processes.

In 2006, HRK Holdings LLC purchased the Piney Point property. After the purchase, HRK requested permission from DEP to store a mix of seawater and dredge material that neighboring Port Manatee planned to pump off the sea floor for a berth construction project. DEP granted permits allowing the material to be stored inside lined ponds in the gypsum stacks.

After a breach in one of the liners in May 2011, the state allowed HRK to discharge about 170 million gallons of Piney Point wastewater into Bishop Harbor. The company later repaired the liner.

Now DEP, Manatee County and HRK are looking to ground injection as the way to solve the wastewater problem for good. HRK's plan, according to DEP, is to inject about 1 million gallons of water a day into the well and use evaporation methods to dispose of another half-million gallons a day.

Once the water is gone, HRK would be expected to clean the pond liners in the gypsum stacks. Any rainwater that collected in the ponds thereafter could be discharged without treatment as stormwater.

But the financial status of HRK Holdings also could be an issue. HRK Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012. Since then, it has been selling off pieces of its land at the Piney Point land. The sales are being overseen by a federal bankruptcy court.

Jordan Levy, HRK's CEO, did not respond to a request to comment on the waste disposal plan.

Questions of reliability

CH2M Hill, the Englewood, Colo.-based engineering firm the county hired to design its new wells, says they are safe when it comes to protecting drinkable groundwater. The proposed Class V wells are designed to bolster the depleted, seawater-vulnerable water table near Port Manatee.

The wells would pump up to 15 million gallons of treated wastewater as far as 1,100 feet underground daily. That wastewater would be piped from the nearby North Regional Water Reclamation Facility on 69th Street East. At that depth, the treated water would be beneath a layer of limestone that engineers say will keep it away from shallower wells. It would also be below the 890-foot estimated bottom limit of the county's drinking water aquifer, according to documents prepared by CH2M Hill's Tampa office.

The Class I well is farther separated from groundwater.

At the April 16 meeting, CH2M Hill geologist Pete Larkin said groundwater will be well-protected by more than 700 feet of limestone.

"The confining layer is very significant," he said.

All three wells the county plans to build would operate under construction permits for five years. Joe Haberfeld, a DEP aquifer protection program administrator, said more frequent testing is required under such a permit.

Pressure in the well will also be monitored. A change in pressure can indicate a leak or if water in the well is backing up toward the surface.

Elizabeth Screaton, a University of Florida geologist and professor of hydrology, said the theory behind injection wells is sound where ground conditions are right.

"With sufficiently high hydraulic conductivities in the injection zone, low hydraulic conductivity and good thickness to the confining unit between the injection zone and the drinking water aquifer, and no cross connections between the two zones, injection of waste can be a reasonable option," she said.

DEP officials say that Manatee County's current Class I well at its water treatment plant near Cortez has only about 200 feet of non-porous limestone separating injected wastewater from the aquifer. They say the wastewater has not moved upward through the earth since the well began operations in 1988.

Other wells' problems

The same cannot be said for all injection well sites in Florida. According to DEP, treated wastewater injected through 17 Class I wells in Miami-Dade County was found to be moving toward the surface in the 1990s. While the effluent-tainted water did not reach the drinking water aquifer, DEP and EPA adopted regulations requiring operators of domestic wastewater wells to both treat and disinfect effluent before pumping it underground. DEP said drinkable groundwater in that area remains free of coliform bacteria.

Some local groundwater protection advocates and farmers place less faith in engineering. Susan McMillan, president of Sarasota-based Protect Our Waters Inc., cited a study undertaken by nonprofit news organization ProPublica that showed a significant failure rate in injection wells nationwide. Of the 680,168 wells identified in the study, 6,743 were found to have "significant leaks" between 2008 and 2010. More than 67,000 were found to have violations of some kind. Ninety-nine wells were linked with cases of water contamination.

According to the EPA, two types of failure in a Class I well can cause groundwater contamination. Those failures are leaks in well tubing or casing, or when injected fluid is forced upward between the well's outer casing and its central bore.

About a dozen Class I wells in Florida have experienced failures, according to DEP. All have been repaired and are currently in operation, department officials said. None leaked into the surrounding ground.

McMillan said she is not convinced the engineering behind Manatee County's well is safe.

"It's not ready to go," she contended.

McMillan is also concerned that Manatee County is looking to use the well to attract industry that will use it to dispose of their waste.

"They're garbage disposals for corporations that don't want to clean up after themselves," she said.

Economic risks

Some farmers working land near the Piney Point site are as concerned about their livelihoods that rely on groundwater. Reeder, president of the Manatee County Farm Bureau, said a leak could ruin the groundwater farmers use to irrigate their crops. That, he said, could destroy the county's farming industry, which a recent University of Florida study showed supporting more than 42,000 Manatee County jobs and generating $2.36 billion in annual revenue.

Reeder said the Farm Bureau is committed to working with Manatee County to get the former Piney Point land cleaned up, but not at the expense of the county's water supply. Bureau members want the county to look at other methods to clean up the Piney Point Phosphates waste before it enters the aquifer.

"How are we going to clean it up?" he said.

Farmers express concerns that contaminated water could show up in some of the deeper irrigation and drinking water wells near the Class I well. In preparing a November 2013 permit application, the county identified 119 wells between 4 and 1,600 feet deep located within the permit application's area of review. None are within 500 feet of the proposed well.

Contamination worries aside, the usefulness of the well is not lost upon opponents. Glenn Compton, director of environmental protection organization ManaSota-88, said that while he does not believe a Class I injection well should be located on the former Piney Point land, something has to be done to clean the site. ManaSota-88 has served as an unofficial citizens watchdog over the cleanup at Piney Point.

"To the county's credit, they realize that there's a serious problem at Piney Point," Compton said.

Compton wants the county to look at alternative methods of cleaning up Piney Point, or a different location for the well. In comments submitted to DEP, Compton states that "all wells are subject to failure" and the waste pumped into such a well "will ultimately migrate beyond the point of injection." His group is asking DEP to disapprove of the county's permit for the deep injection well.

The deep well was developed collaboratively with DEP, Gore and Goodwin said. HRK was also included in early discussions.

If the Class I well is built and used for the cleanup, the county would charge HRK a pumping rate. Goodwin said the county is working with a rate consultant to determine the amount. The county also plans to charge industrial manufacturers for pumping their non-hazardous waste into the well.

That income would pay a portion of the well construction. The county is also seeking $7.5 million from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Potential waste dumping down the well could far exceed the volume of water in the Piney Point stacks. The county's permit application for the well estimates that a pumping rate of 1 million gallons a day could push more than 3.6 billion gallons of wastewater into the ground.

Larry Bustle, chairman of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners and a member of the Manatee County Port Authority, said he intends to vote in favor of building the Class I well. Still, he said he shares the concerns of the county's farmers and wants to know that the well will be safe.

The well, he said, could bring several benefits to the county. If built, it will provide a cleanup method at Piney Point and attract industry that needs a way to get rid of its wastewater.

Port Manatee is actively recruiting industrial, manufacturing and other business operations to build facilities on about 5,000 acres surrounding the port.

"If the science shows it's a safe thing to do, it's got a lot of advantages for the port and the overall environmental situation at the port," Bustle said.

At least one of Bustle's fellow board members, Michael Gallen, won't vote in favor of the deep injection well when its funding or related resolutions come before the board. He said the long-term effects of injected waste are unknown.

"I don't feel secure that this won't harm our water supply, won't harm our farming industry and won't harm our ecosystem," he said. "We can't take it back once there's a mistake.

Written comments concerning the proposed injection wells must be sent to DEP by May 16. Comments may be sent to the attention of Joe Haberfeld, Department of Environmental Protection, 2600 Blair Stone Road, MS 3530, Tallahassee, FL 32399-2400.

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

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