MANATEE -- Most Manatee County commissioners are refusing to move forward with a deep injection well at the former Piney Point Phosphates property until they are comfortable with the science behind it and with county responsibility for the half-billion gallons of contaminated water to be pumped underground.
During a work session Tuesday that drew dozens of county residents, commissioners questioned the need for and motivations behind the proposed well near Port Manatee. Saying they felt pressured, commissioners decided to put the brakes on the project even as the permitting process continues.
Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said the well-planning process had gotten too far along without input from the full commission.
"I think we should halt this right now and explore other options," she said.
State Department of Environmental Protection and Manatee County Utilities Department officials are promoting the 3,500-foot-deep, $6 million well as the safest, quickest and cheapest way to clean up the site's contaminated water.
"We believe it's completely safe," said Chris Klena, deputy director of DEP Division of Water Resource Management. "We feel it's our best and safest option."
But by the end of a 3 1/2-hour session -- which pitted concerns about groundwater contamination against safety reassurances from a contingent of county officials, engineers and DEP staffers -- most commissioners were not convinced. Project prospects didn't improve when commissioners learned Manatee County would be the first place in the state where phosphate-contaminated water would be pumped underground.
"It just makes me nervous that Manatee County is going to be the test case for this," said Commissioner Carol Whitmore.
Commissioners expressing concern over the well included Whitmore, DiSabatino, Vanessa Baugh, Betsy Benac and Michael Gallen. Only Gallen said he will definitely vote against any funding or resolutions needed to build the well. The others told Klena they need to see more information about the water that would go down the well.
Commission Chairman Larry Bustle, who in the past has indicated support for the deep well, voiced no concerns Tuesday. When asked by other commissioners to approve a show of hands on support of the well proposal, he refused.
Since 2012, DEP and the county utilities department have been planning the well as a solution to the Piney Point pollution problem, and as a place to dispose of brine from a planned water purification plant, excess domestic wastewater and industrial wastewater from local manufacturers. The county applied for a permit last November to build a Class I injection well, and another for two shallower wells for treated wastewater disposal. The project's total cost is estimated at $25 million. Permit approval is still a few regulatory steps away.
If built, the wells would join 10 other injection wells around Manatee. The county owns and operates eight wells for domestic wastewater disposal and for storing fresh drinking water. Tropicana uses two others at its Bradenton production facility to get rid of water used in manufacturing.
Top on the list of concerns Tuesday was the possibility the deep well might fail and allow contaminated water to enter an aquifer used for irrigation and drinking water. Across the state, about a dozen Class I wells have faled, according to the DEP. Water pumped into 17 injection wells in Miami-Dade County was found in the 1990s to be migrating upward toward the area's aquifer.
While state safety inspections show all Manatee County's injection wells comply with state standards, commissioners and citizens at the work session were not reassured.
David Woodhouse, a Bradenton resident and geologist who has worked on radioactive waste disposal issues, said geology offers no safety guarantees. Well designers, he said, cannot be certain dense layers of rock that separate waste from drinkable water will remain intact.
"There is no such thing as a stable geological environment," he said. "It doesn't exist."
DEP and county staff say options to the well are few and expensive.
One alternate method of treating the waste is through reverse osmosis water purification. Manatee County plans to build a $33 million reverse osmosis plant by 2022 to purify ground water. Amy Pilson, a spokeswoman for the county utilities department, said the plant would cost even more if designed to process Piney Point wastewater.
A Class I well costs less and could be operational sooner. Pete Larkin, a geologist working on the well design with engineering firm CH2M Hill, told the commission the well could be drilled and put into operation in 18 months.
Several commissioners noted DEP could permit a private company to build a disposal well for the Piney Point waste. Klena said it is not the preferred situation for her agency. She said Manatee County would be the right entity to operate the well because of years of experience operating other injection wells.
"You're our preferred client," she said.
The deep well approval process moves into its next phase this week. A public comment period ends Friday. DEP officials will consider those comments and choose whether to publish an "intent to issue" notice for the well permit.
Once the notice is published, the public has 14 days to petition for an administrative hearing to consider the permit. If no hearing is held, the agency could issue the permit.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.