PORT MANATEE -- The protective lining for one of the abandoned phosphogypsum stacks at the old Piney Point facility has torn, allowing potentially contaminated seawater to gush from the site and creating an “imminent threat,” officials acknowledged Tuesday.
While officials say it’s too early to tell what caused the tear, it has occurred as material is being dumped into Piney Point’s stacks from Port Manatee’s Berth 12 dredging.
Immense water pressure from the stack’s leak is pushing into an underground drain and then into a lined stormwater ditch, causing a bulge and cracking along the south wall of the south stack along Buckeye Road. That has created “an imminent threat” of a “catastrophic release of large amounts of seawater and embankment material,” the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has found.
The agency issued an emergency order over the holiday weekend for HRK Holdings LLC, the company that took over the former Piney Point facility in 2006, to dump some of the seawater creating the pressure into Bishop Harbor in an effort “to protect human health and safety and to protect the environment from a potential catastrophic failure of the containment facility.”
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Employees from DEP, the port, Great Lakes Dredging Co. and HRK Holdings worked through Tuesday to monitor the discharge. Water is flowing from the site at about 2,700 gallons a minute, officials told the Herald.
Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for DEP, said the state agency is collecting samples of the saltwater discharge from the stack’s outfall. The agency is monitoring for nitrogen, phosphorus, conductivity and chloride in addition to what would normally be monitored at the site.
The agency is rushing the results of all the tests, but early findings indicate that “conductivity and pH are consistent with seawater from Manatee Harbor from the dredging project.”
“As the discharge is seawater, we do not expect any significant concerns that will arise from these results,” Miller added.
Charlie Hunsicker, the county’s director of Natural Resources, said Manatee County has water quality stations in Bishop Harbor and monitors the water quality monthly.
He said the county will continue to monitor but will let the state take the lead on dealing with any potential contamination through its emergency order.
The state has been working to clean up the site since the Mulberry Company went bankrupt and abandoned the plant in 2001, leaving billions of gallons of acidic water and stacks of toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead and radium. Phosphogypsum is a byproduct of processing phosphates into fertilizer using sulfuric acid. It is stored in stacks around the state because it is radioactive from the naturally occurring uranium and radium in phosphate ore.
At its worst point in 2003, about 250 million gallons of Piney Point’s treated wastewater was shipped out and dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, which state officials decided was the only way to avoid a major environmental disaster from overflow. Over six years, the agency released about 1.2 billion gallons of treated wastewater into Bishop Harbor.
HRK took the property from DEP in 2006 after signing a $3.5 million deal with Port Manatee to store 1.5 million cubic yards of dredge material from its new Berth 12, a $200 million, 11-year project designed to help capture increased traffic from the Panama Canal expansion.
Dredging began April 22, when the Great Lakes Dredging Co. began pumping sand from the sea floor through pipes to the stacks on HRK’s property.
On May 11, HRK reported an unexpected increase in the amount of water pushing through the underground drains.
It was the first indication that there might be a leak or a breach in the stack’s lining. By May 20, the company transferred the dredge materials into an adjacent reservoir in the phosphogypsum stacks to lower the water levels and look for and repair any leaks.
Pressure was still high by this weekend and workers found the bulge and a crack in the embankment wall.
Jordan H. Levy, CEO for HRK Holdings LLC., said it is too early to tell what caused the fracture.
“We believe the damage was caught,” Levy said. “A liner protection plan has been put in place.”
He said the company stopped all operations in the damaged containment area, punctured the liner where pressure was building and is draining the water into a ditch. Some of that water is draining into Bishop Harbor, but most of it is going into Manatee Harbor, a man-made harbor in Tampa Bay.
Levy said the water flowing from the stacks is being tested hourly. He said workers are analyzing what happened to make sure it does not happen in the two other reservoirs in the stacks.
“We’ve notified DEP and we have our engineers and everybody involved,” Jordan said. “We want to find the problem, stop it and prevent it from happening at the other compartments.”
The dredging at Port Manatee has not stopped.
Steve Tyndal, Port Manatee’s director of trade development and special projects, said there is enough capacity at the former Piney Point site to store all of the dredge material.
“One cell is no longer in use, but even with that there is enough existing capacity to complete our work,” he said.
The port had projected that dredging for Berth 12 would be completed by October.
But Tyndal said they are so far ahead of schedule that the project could be completed in July.
Tyndal said the port is relying on HRK and the dredge company to find and repair the leak in the lining at the stacks. He said DEP has “informed us that there is no immediate threat” from the water coming from the stacks.