MANATEE -- Half a billion gallons of contaminated water at the former Piney Point Phosphates property will be pumped thousands of feet underground if a planned Manatee County injection well plan is approved by the state.
Critics say the new well will compound the ruinous environmental pollution it is meant to contain.
"We're worried about the environmental disaster that's coming," said Alan Jones, a potato, bean, cattle and citrus farmer on Buckeye Road.
The well, in the works since 2012, took heavy criticism at a public meeting Wednesday night as state officials and engineers working for the county defended the project to several dozen Manatee and Hillsborough county residents in county commission chambers.
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If built, the well would receive toxic water left on Piney Point land after a 2011 leak in a containment area allowed 170 million gallons of wastewater to flow into nearby Bishop Harbor.
Susan McMillan, president of citizens group Protect Our Waters Inc., cataloged a litany of failures at similar wells around the nation. She said one study cataloged 7,000 failures over a three-year period.
"I think we have a really good reason to be concerned," she said.
The well will be built near the southeast corner of South Dock Street and U.S. 41 in 2015 or 2016, along with two shallow fresh water recharge wells on Port Manatee property.
The crowd was less interested in the construction schedule or projected $17.2 million price tag than it was in what might be poured down the deep well and whether it would stay down.
Over the course of two hours, engineers from Englewood, Colo.-based CH2M Hill discussed how the deep well would be built and how it would contain the salty, mucky water on Piney Point land.
Critics expressed doubts about safety and questioned the well's ability to keep toxins out of aquifers.
No one opposed the recharge wells, which are being built to pump treated wastewater into the county aquifer.
It might be too late for opponents to do anything about the deep well. Joe Haberfeld, an administrator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection aquifer protection program, said the project is moving ahead.
The county applied for permits for the deep well and two recharge wells in November. DEP recently prepared draft permits for the wells and expects to publish an "intent to issue" statement soon, he said.
If DEP issues permits, Manatee County will build the wells for two purposes:
Two wells measuring about 1,100 feet deep will be dug near the northwest corner of Port Manatee property and used to pump up to 15 million gallons of treated wastewater into the aquifer daily from the county North Regional Water Reclamation Facility, which treats wastewater for use in irrigation. During the rainy season, the facility's water surplus will be pumped into the ground to stave off saltwater intrusion caused by overusing the aquifer.
"We're growing and we gotta look out for where our disposal options are," said Mike Gore, director of the Manatee County Utilities Department.
A deep injection well will be drilled as deep as 3,500 feet to sequester non-hazardous industrial waste water under several hundred feet of rock CH2M Hill engineers say will isolate it from the area's drinking water aquifer.
Pete Larkin, project engineer, said the well would likely pump about 1 million gallons of wastewater into the ground daily into a plastic, steel and concrete well shaft on the way down. At the bottom, it will dump into undrinkably salty groundwater.
Over 10 years, he said the contaminated water will spread less than half a mile from the well site. Two monitoring wells will be used to determine whether waste is moving into the drinking water aquifer.
Florida is home to more than 180 deep injection wells, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection website.
The state outlawed drilling new deep injection wells for hazardous waste in 1983. However, during a Manatee County Board of Commissioners meeting in March 2013, utilities officials said deep injection wells can still accept waste from power plants, chlorine plants and reverse osmosis operations.
Amy Pilson, spokeswoman for the county utilities department, said Manatee County will foot the entire bill for the wells. The county hopes to recoup well costs from HRK and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The deep well is planned to be built on land owned by HRK Holdings, the company that owns the former Piney Point fertilizer plant.
When Mulberry Corp. went bankrupt in 2001 it fell to taxpayers to pay for the estimated $20 million cost of the cleanup of gypsum and 1.2 billion gallons of acidic and nutrient-laden water left stagnant in the stacks.
HRK Holdings bought the site in 2006, which was expected to help defray cleanup costs, but HRK went bankrupt, too, leaving the Department of Environmental Protection and taxpayers once again on the hook for tens of millions in containment costs.
Ana Gibbs, DEP external affairs manager, said comments about the wells should be emailed ASAP to Joe Haberfield at email@example.com, or to his attention at the Department of Environmental Protection, 2600 Blair Stone Road, Tallahassee, FL 32399-2400.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.