MANATEE -- Two lining ruptures were pinpointed Monday at the former Piney Point phosphate plant, almost four weeks since officials first reported to the state that the plant has been leaking -- as much as 3.9 million gallons a day of potentially contaminated seawater.
Workers discovered two separate tears in a lining covering the floor of former gypsum stacks at the facility now owned by HRK Holdings LLC, according to Jordan Levy, the company’s chief executive officer.
Port Manatee had been disposing dredge material from its Berth 12 construction project at the facility, but the port halted its dredging Friday as the search for damage in the stacks continued, said Steve Tyndal, the port’s director of trade development and special projects.
One leak was discovered in a cell where the dredge material begins its journey through the facility, while the other was found in an area at the end of the process where clean, filtered seawater is housed before it is pumped back into Manatee Harbor, Levy said.
Workers found one of the tears when they spotted a visible “vortex” in the water. The vortex disappeared after a patch was completed beneath it, Levy said.
“We’ll know more in the morning,” Levy said. “We’ll have to see if this patch works; if it’s successful, we might be able to create a permanent fix.
“The mood here is very upbeat for everybody involved,” he added.
He estimated fixes might take anywhere from a few days to more than a week.
Asked how much the facility will cost to repair, Levy said that for now, “We’re focusing on fixing it.”
A crew of about 20 workers had been at the site late Monday, he said. State officials have not determined what caused the tears.
Once the company, its engineers and consultants, and officials of the state Department of Environmental Protection are confident both breaches are fixed, dredging will begin again at Port Manatee, said Levy.
On May 11, the company reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection that it suspected a breach of the liner system atop the former gypsum stacks that the company had converted to handle dredge material from the port.
On May 29, state environmental regulators OK’d an order permitting emergency discharges to ensure the integrity of the huge former stacks, which span 400 acres and rise 75 to 90 feet high.
Last week, the site had been hemorrhaging more than 3.5 million gallons a day; the company reported its own hourly water quality tests showed the discharge was seawater unpolluted by phosphate contaminants. State officials also are testing the composition of the discharge, but results had not yet been announced Monday.
Environmentalists say they are concerned that the discharge could carry some of the harsh chemicals associated with phosphate mining, and would damage Bishop Harbor, which is part of a protected area called Terra Ceia Aquatic Buffer Preserve.
County Commissioner Larry Bustle, in whose district the facility at 13300 U.S. Hwy. 41 N. is located, emphasized that cells atop the former Mulberry Corp. phosphate stacks had been drained of phosphate debris, cleaned of pollutants and lined before any dredge material was stored there.
He described the facility’s process as a series of “settling” ponds that separate seawater from dredge debris.
As dredge material goes into one cell, heavier matter settles to the bottom and seawater stays on top; then it goes into the next cell, and the process is repeated, he said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.