MANATEE -- State environmental officials suspect a piece of mechanical equipment may have caused a tear in the protective lining at one of the abandoned phosphogypsum stacks at Piney Point, allowing seawater to gush from the site.
“Based on the pieces of torn liner discovered in the damaged compartment, we believe the tear may have been caused by mechanical equipment,” Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said Wednesday.
Once officials at the site, now operating as the Eastport Terminal, are able to expose the torn area, they will repair any damage, and weld a new section of liner to seal the compartment, Miller said.
“The repair would be tested to make sure it is watertight,” she said in an e-mail.
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The flow rate of the emergency discharge is estimated to be about 2,690 gallons per minute, Miller said.
DEP is testing for contaminants like nitrogen, phosphorus and chloride, in addition to what would normally be monitored at the site, officials said.
Completion of the lab results were being expedited, but were still incomplete late Wednesday, they said.
“As indicated, available sampling results indicate the conductivity and pH are consistent with seawater from Manatee Harbor from the dredging project, and show no evidence of the saltwater being toxic,” said Miller.
“In an abundance of caution, we are measuring for other constituents to ensure that there are no concerns with other water quality parameters,” she added.
Among the items being monitored were gross alpha and radium 226-228, along with iron, sodium and sulfate, Miller said.
Officials did not expect any significant concerns to arise from the test results, she said.
But environmental leaders voiced their concerns Wednesday.
“It certainly demonstrates that there’s no such thing as a liner that doesn’t leak,” said Glenn Compton, director of ManaSota-88, a local environmental public health organization. “Given enough time, it’s clear that accidents always happen, and this is significant at Piney Point because of the high level of radium and toxic chemicals like arsenic and cadmium.”
He also questioned whether it was a good idea to sell the site at Piney Point to a limited liability corporation like HRK.
“It remains to be seen whether or not this company can financially manage the phosphogypsum stack in a environmentally sound manner,” Compton said.
HRK Holdings LLC is responsible for operation at the former fertilizer plant, where material from a dredging operation at the port is being stored.
Over the weekend, state officials issued an emergency order authorizing HRK to dump some of the seawater temporarily, if needed, to preserve the integrity of containment systems, Miller said.
HRK will be responsible for any repairs needed and their cost, she said.
The dredging at the port is in conjunction with construction of Berth 12, designed to attract giant cargo ships that will be using the Panama Canal once an expansion is completed in 2014.
In 2006, HRK purchased the property previously owned by the Mulberry Corp., which had declared bankruptcy.
Because of the suspected leak, dredging material is being stored in another stack until officials are sure the cell is watertight, according to Steve Tyndal, Port Manatee’s director of trade development and special projects.
Over a million cubic yards may be moved by the time the dredging project ends, perhaps as early as July, he said.
“Actually, the water is being filtered by gravity to take the sediment out of it, and the water goes back into Terra Ceia Bay,” explained Commissioner Larry Bustle, who represents the area in which the port is located.
“Essentially, you have a slurry of water and dredge materials that are being sucked up by the dredge machine, and that mixture of sand, rock and water goes through the pipes across (U.S. 41) and into the pit over there,” Bustle said. “And as I said, it’s allowed to settle, and at the end of the process, you have seawater.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.