The idea of a deep injection well to pump a half billion gallons of contaminated water hundreds of feet below the region's irrigation and water supply is fraught with risk.
Manatee County commissioners took a prudent step on Tuesday by demanding more details about the science of injection wells and other alternatives to cleaning up a polluted mess near Port Manatee.
The contaminated water at the old Piney Point Phosphates plant cannot continue to be exposed to heavy rainfall and hurricanes, thereby threatening Bishop Harbor and Tampa Bay with polluted runoff or worse, should containment burst.
That occurred in May 2011. HRK Holdings LLC, which purchased the abandoned site in 2006, used lined ponds inside old gypsum stacks to store seawater and dredge material from a port berth expansion project, but a liner tore and the state issued an emergency order allowing the release of 170 million gallons of wastewater into in Bishop Harbor to prevent a worse disaster.
The contaminated water contains byproducts from fertilizer manufacturing, including beryllium, cadmium, iron, sodium and arsenic. But DEP states the amounts are not rated as toxic or hazardous. The polluted wastewater also holds phosphate and nitrogen nutrients, which cause algae blooms.
Manatee County, HRK and Florida's Department of Environmental Protection are seeking a permanent solution to the surface pollution -- by pumping the wastewater 2,500 to 3,500 feet underground, some 1,200 feet below the aquifer.
Hundreds of feet of limestone and clay would prevent the waste from flowing up into the drinking and irrigation water, experts claim.
But there is no guarantee here, and that has farmers and residents rightfully fearful of an underground disaster should the well rupture or the wastewater flows through any crevices in the rock and clay into the aquifer. Can geologists provide certainty that the wastewater will remain deep underground?
While county and state DEP officials contend an injection well is the safest, quickest and cheapest solution to this site cleanup, there's plenty of contradictory history.
Around the country, about 100 water sources have been contaminated by similar disposal methods -- with about a dozen Class 1 injection well failures in Florida. DEP and Manatee County's utilities department have been planning a Class 1 well for two years, and the permitting process is well underway.
Miami-Dade County discovered wastewater pumped down Class 1 injection wells moving toward the region's aquifer in the 1990s. Have there been enough advances in the science to prevent this today?
We need strong assurances that our drinking water supply will remain safe. Plus, our agricultural economy is too valuable, and crop irrigation from the aquifer is essential.
One of the options to a deep well is a reverse osmosis water purification plant, which Manatee County plans to build but the facility won't be operational until 2022. But the plant design would have to be modified to treat Piney Point wastewater at a higher cost than the current $33 million. Could the extra cost be justified? Could that timeline be advanced?
A deep injection well could be drilled and pumping wastewater in some 18 months.
All options to mitigating the Piney Point pollution should be exhausted before the county commits to a deep injection well (which would add to the county's current 10 injection wells of varying depths).
The community also needs solid scientific proof that wastewater will not contaminate our water supply, should the well plan move forward.
Let us proceed with all due caution before Manatee County becomes home to the first well pumping phosphate-contaminated water deep underground. We don't want to become the site of a failed experiment.