MANATEE -- State officials released a new set of water quality test results Friday, concluding that “there are no water quality concerns for metals and other parameters in Bishop Harbor.”
But the results also showed that levels of cadmium, a highly toxic heavy metal, had actually increased near the former Piney Point phosphate plant, now owned by HRK Holdings, LLC. And levels of phosphorus and nitrogen continued to be “very high,” according to an attorney who specializes in environmental cases.
HRK officials first reported problems at their facility May 11. They determined that water was leaking from the site because of ruptures in a plastic liner that covers the floor of the former gypsum stacks, where dredge material from Port Manatee has been handled.
On May 29, state officials allowed emergency discharges to ensure the structural integrity of the site. Millions of gallons were discharged per day for weeks. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection tested water samples collected in the area May 30 and again June 9.
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Much of the water that leaked from the site drained downhill to Bishop Harbor, which is part of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Buffer Preserve.
“Of particular note, the results show that cadmium, which was detected in the discharge to the Buckeye Road ditch, is more than 10 times below the cadmium marine water quality standard that applies to this system,” said a DEP summary of the most recent data.
The testing found cadmium at one site in the harbor at a concentration of 0.73 micrograms per liter, well below the state saltwater standard of 8.8 micrograms per liter, DEP officials said.
But the amount of cadmium DEP discovered at an outfall that drained into a ditch alongside Buckeye Road was higher than the sample taken May 30, the results showed.
The latest results showed 2.4 micrograms per liter, compared to 2.0 micrograms per liter previously, both well above the freshwater standard of .22 micrograms per liter.
Cadmium levels are evaluated in part in connection with the hardness of the water, and seawater by its nature is a hardwater system, according to John Coates, deputy director for DEP’s Division of Water Resources Management.
He contended that would be a mitigating factor, since the discharge from the site was mostly seawater.
Environmental attorney David Guest agreed, but said of the findings: “The problem is the area around the outfall is gravely polluted; the question is, ‘How big an area is being seriously contaminated?’ and it sounds like a pretty big area.”
Guest, managing partner at an environmental law firm called Earthjustice, also was troubled by what he termed “still very high” levels of the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen listed in the report.
High levels of the two nutrients have consistently ranked as one of the top causes of degradation of water bodies in the U.S., according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
In 2006, HRK purchased the property previously owned by the Mulberry Corp., which had declared bankruptcy. With the blessing of state environmental regulators, the company cleaned the former phosphate stacks of slurry and debris and installed plastic linings designed to hold dredge material from Port Manatee.
The dredging 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.
With the help of great quantities of seawater from Manatee Harbor, pipelines from the port carried dredge debris to HRK’s facility at 13300 U.S. 41 N.
On June 3, port officials halted dredging to provide time for the company to find the source of the leaks and to repair them. Officials have said it will begin again once repairs are made.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.