PORT MANATEE -- To spend less money and decrease paperwork in the event of a toxic spill, Port Manatee and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are changing how they do business together.
Under a memorandum of agreement approved unanimously by the Manatee County Port Authority, the port will focus primarily on making sure contaminants from port operations do not leave its property and affect neighbors. Previously, the port had to monitor spills in detail, testing their boundaries, or plumes, until they had stopped spreading. Assessment required a process to determine whether a spill needed to be cleaned to residential, commercial or industrial standards.
Key in the port's new agreement approved last week is how DEP classifies port land. The port's 1,000-acre property is now designated as a single industrial site. Future toxic spills can be dealt with under the authority of the agreement.
During a discussion prior to the agreement's approval, port Commissioner Michael Gallen asked for a succinct explanation of the measure's purpose. Jorge Caspary, a DEP waste management official attending the meeting, used an analogy likening the port to a gas station. Gas stations are responsible for making sure spills don't flow onto neighboring properties, he
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said, not for watching every spot where a gallon of gas or pint of oil has been cleaned off the ground.
"The scale is the only thing that's different," he said.
DEP is now tracking four sites at the port that have been cleaned up or may require future cleanup. Fuel supplier TransMontaigne is responsible for two, a fuel oil spill and cleanup at its Port Manatee fuel tank farm. The port is monitoring two sites where piles of steel shavings, or mill scale, left high concentrations of iron particles in the ground. Both the port and DEP acknowledge that groundwater contamination does exist on port property.
One of the mill scale sites has cost the port more than $100,000 for cleanup and monitoring since 2001.
George Isiminger, the port's senior director of environmental affairs, said it's not possible to determine how much less the port will have to pay in cleaning and testing future spills.
"We haven't assessed it," he said.
The port will still be required to notify DEP in the event of a spill, and to go through a testing and cleanup for each one.
Mara Burger, a spokeswoman with DEP, said the agreement doesn't change testing standards. The port must still identify spills, clean them up and make sure they don't spread.
It does, however, allow the port to avoid dealing with each spill separately when it comes to negotiating a cleanup plan with the state.
"This is a cost savings to the port and the taxpayer," Burger wrote in an email.
The port may also extend the agreement to clients such as TransMontaigne when they clean spills of their own making.
Spills at the port are not allowed to contaminate drinking water, which port officials say is a non-issue on port property. Seventeen wells at the port are used for irrigation, toilets and a fish farm, but none to supply drinking water. The agreement forbids any future drinking water wells at the port.
A provision allow the port to build and otherwise develop over spill sites once they are cleaned and shown not to be spreading. Contaminated soil would have to be capped prior to construction, according to the DEP, to prevent human exposure.
Gallen was the only potential holdout from the unanimous vote. He said assurances from the port's attorney and from the DEP convinced him that the new agreement would not increase the risk of ground or groundwater contamination. However, he said he will be the first to call for reconsideration if the agreement fails to protect the public.
The agreement comes as the port and its environs become a battleground over groundwater protection. Manatee County plans to build two injection wells at the port that could push up to 15 million gallons of treated wastewater daily into the local water table. Another, deeper injection well may also be built just yards east of the port. It would be used to pump upward of half a billion gallons of toxic surface water at the former Piney Point Phosphates plant thousands of feet underground.
Opponents say deep injection wells are subject to failure and often contaminate ground water.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.