MANATEE -- When the former phosphate plant at Piney Point began leaking millions of gallons of fluid, the state Department of Environmental Protection quickly got involved.
Officials with the state and HRK, the company that owns the site, blamed rup- tures in a plastic liner that covered the floor atop the former gypsum stacks, where dredge material from Port Manatee was being stored.
Discharge from the site included toxic heavy metal cadmium along with higher-than-normal levels of phosphorus and nitrogen.
We talked with John Coates, deputy director for DEP’s Division of Water Resources Management, about the latest details of the spill and how it is being handled.
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Is the crisis over? I remember last time I did this story there was talk in the emergency order about the potential of a catastrophic failure. I spoke to some residents who lived near the stack and they knew nothing about any kind of evacuation orders. Can those people down there breathe a sigh of relief that the major crisis is over?
I certainly think ... (there is) ... no longer a leak in the reservoir. The folks at the facility were very eager, as quick as they could on Monday morning, to get down in the bottom of that reservoir compartment and isolate the leak from the rest of the reservoir compartment. And so, that went a long way.
Their efforts to push, and to give, and get in there as soon as they could, were very important to making that part of the emergency over. They do still have a lot of water there on the site that they’re managing. They’re doing everything they can not to have a discharge and when they do, they’re doing everything they can to make sure it’s well-clarified water if it has to be discharged.
I can’t say that there won’t be a resumption to a limited discharge the next few days, it will depend on the weather. We all need a little rain to keep things well balanced, but hopefully, we won’t have any intense or severe rainfall, and they are on top of monitoring those, and managing the water in the system.
So, there may be some continuing discharges for a short period of time. But I think that they, in the facility, have responded, and we don’t have any huge concern today. And they did what we ordered them to do, in terms of safeguarding that system, and to their own detriment in terms of having to manage an awful lot of water on site.
Just to summarize, the people who live nearby don’t need to worry about the gypsum stack coming apart and having a sudden gush of water in the neighborhoods?
I think it’s sufficient to say that’s correct.
Is it possible to tell us about how much has leaked from the HRK site?
I certainly know that we and the company are working to pull together the information. They had to do an awful lot to keep things working as well as they did at the site. And one of the difficulties is to account for the pumps that were used and the hydraulics, to be able to account for the pumping and information. Our most important goal is to pull that information together and get it right.
Have you discovered what the source of the cadmium was?
Cadmium and so many of those metals exist naturally in all the soils in different concentrations. They are part of the elements of the earth. And so, certainly, that cadmium is from a natural source, you know, everything in the former fertilizer processing facilities, all the things that would be detected from that, or things that are detected when somebody digs in your own backyard, and takes a shovelful of soil to a laboratory and analyzes it.
If you look at low enough concentrations, you will find all of these. And so, I don’t know exactly the source of the cadmium at this point, and we may never know, other than it comes from the soils and things like that. We can take a look back to the water quality data that comes from the site, and find out the most important thing: What is the concentration of cadmium, and is it of concern? And, the secondary item of interest is, what was the source of the cadmium? These cadmium concentrations are nothing alarming in terms of things that you would find in background concentrations in many areas where you have disturbed soils or you’re taking soil samples or water samples.
Do you expect an algae bloom or a fish kill in Bishop Harbor, and if so, why, and if not, why?
We’ve done a very comprehensive scan and the water quality data shows I don’t believe we have any concerns for a fish kill or any problems with Bishop Harbor in that regard. So, I feel very comfortable with that.
With regard to the nutrient loading, the system in the past has received nutrient discharges and we’re working very diligently to be able to quantify the amount of nutrients that have been discharged because of this event.
I am going to remain optimistic, but cautious. That’s why we’re going to continue to monitor and make sure that we absolutely know what’s going on there. And like I said before, we will get you that information just as quickly as we can.
Do fishermen have to worry about eating the fish they catch in Bishop Harbor?
Our water quality data are the best tools that we have to answer that question. And based on the water quality data, again, that cadmium concentration, for example, is more than 10 times lower than the marine water quality standard of that system. And so I feel very comfortable. We’re going to continue monitoring, and if we have any news different, certainly we will let you know.
In light of the situation with emergency discharges, does the department feel it was the right step to allow this dredging operation, to put water on top of these gypsum stacks in the first place because it seemed like it was just trouble waiting to happen.
Well, certainly for those who are not familiar with these systems and with lined reservoirs, I certainly can understand why they would think that. However, it’s important to note that in the department, a lot of folks have a lot of experience with lined reservoirs. For example, there is another lined reservoir that’s very large that’s a facility that’s been in operation for eight years with no concerns. And we certainly would not have ever expected the concerns that developed here.
We planned for contingencies to make sure you can handle these things as best as anybody reasonably can. And even whether you expect or not and it certainly was not something we expected.
We clearly required the facility to have contingency plans and communication plans.
But in our case, the people at the facility have done a lot of work to improve the conditions there. The HRK folks that own the facility, after they bought it from the bankruptcy trustee in August 2006, they spent a lot of time dismantling the old former chemical plant, sulfuric acid phosphoric acid plant, that had been abandoned at the facility. And they’ve done a lot to improve that property, we believe. They’ve done a lot to clean it up from the old plants that were outside of the work the department had done, and they had gone in and partnered with the port, Port Manatee, and had come up with a very reasonable plan with a lot of planning, a lot of engineering behind it. And, unfortunately, something has happened with this particular reservoir.
HISTORY OF THE PINEY POINT LEAK
A former phosphate plant at Piney Point leaked millions of gallons per day for weeks, but finally last week, the massive discharges appeared to stop.
The facility, owned by HRK Holdings, LLC., had been converted from a former phosphate plant to a facility that disposes of dredge material from a Port Manatee construction project.
HRK officials first reported problems May 11 and May 29, state officials allowed emergency discharges to ensure the structural integrity of the huge former gypsum stacks, which cover 400 acres and tower 75-90 feet high.
State and company officials blamed ruptures in a plastic liner that covered the floor atop the former stacks, where dredge material from Port Manatee was handled.
Discharges from the site, especially in ditches that carried runoff along Buckeye Road where it meets U.S. 41 N., were found to have been contaminated with the toxic heavy metal cadmium, along with higher-than-normal levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection water quality test results.
Much of the discharge from the site drained downhill to Bishop Harbor, part of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Buffer Preserve.
The company’s neighbors told The Herald they were scared to drink their well water, and a charter boat owner wondered whether his family should eat the fish he caught in Bishop Harbor.
Friday, the company was in the process of repairing the damage. It also announced plans last week to begin cleaning ditches in the neighborhood as well.
Port officials said dredging would begin again when repairs conclude.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.