BRADENTON -- A massive water leak at a former Piney Point phosphate plant was staunched Tuesday.
Millions of gallons per day had been leaking from the property, owned by HRK Holdings LLC, but its flow off the property was halted at 4:38 a.m. Tuesday, port and county environmental officials told county commissioners during a morning briefing at the Manatee County Administrative Center.
The company found two ruptures in a lining covering the floor of the 70-acre “clarification pond” atop the former phosphate plant gypsum stacks, which have been converted to dispose of dredge material from a Port Manatee construction project, according to David McDonald, the port authority’s executive director.
The company was in the process of making repairs that could take from five to seven days to complete, he said.
Once repairs are complete, dredging at Berth 12, which was halted earlier this month, could re-start within 48 hours, he said.
“It is our top priority to maintain the highest standards of environmental protection and ensure the safety of our Manatee County neighbors,” said Jordan Levy, HRK’s chief executive officer.
“As of today, Tuesday the 14th, both leaks have been identified and sealed off, and HRK has ceased all discharging of water into the Manatee County freshwater ditch system,” he said.
“We’re working closely with the Department of Environmental Protection and several noted geotechnical experts to ensure that all stacks are deemed secure and permanently repaired. Once this process is completed, we anticipate a quick resumption of the Port Manatee dredging project.”
McDonald said after the meeting that he had “no idea” how much water had spilled from the facility since the DEP issued an order May 29 allowing emergency discharges to ensure the stability of the 400-acre structure at 13300 U.S. 41 N.
A celebratory tone crept into the meeting after county Department of Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker predicted that the discharges, contaminated with higher-than-normal levels of phosphorus, nitrogen and the toxic heavy metal cadmium, probably would not mean long-term damage to the area’s delicate ecology.
Hunsicker had told the commission that elevated levels of chemical nutrients found in state water quality tests would most likely result in an algae bloom at Bishop Harbor, but not fish kills.
”The harbor may respond with an algae bloom, like a vegetative response to the discharge,” Hunsicker said. “The harbor most likely will not respond in any other way,” he added. “We won’t see fish kills, or dangerous conditions, by any means. It’ll be an algae bloom because we’re introducing a high level of food into the system.”
The effect would be like adding Miracle Gro to a garden, he said.
“It shouldn’t be described as a serious condition for the Bishop Harbor area,” he said, noting that a similar, more serious, episode in 2004 did not produce any lasting effects to the health of the bay or the quality of the fisheries and other animals that were in the harbor.
Hunsicker said he wanted to “de-emphasize” concerns that there may be permanent and lasting effects.
Noting that his staff would be taking water quality samples from the harbor for testing Tuesday, he said he expected levels of nutrients to decline over time until they’re no longer noticeable.
Toxic metals detected in the facility’s discharges may have remained on land, according to Greg Blanchard, county environmental program manager.
“We are of the opinion the metals observed in the discharge samples and reported by the media are bonded with sediments that were released,” he said. “These sediments are not reaching the harbor, they’re settling out in the storm water ditch system.”
“Presumably, FDEP will work with HRK and come up with a thoughtful plan to remediate those, and remove the accumulated sediments and restore normal function in the storm water ditch,” he said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.