This old phosphate mine is a ‘looming issue,’ commissioners say. Will the state fix it?

County to prioritize securing funding for Piney Point Phosphate mine cleanup

County commissioners want to secure funding from the state to clean up the now-defunct Piney Point Phosphate mine.
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County commissioners want to secure funding from the state to clean up the now-defunct Piney Point Phosphate mine.

An abandoned phosphate mine that shut down nearly 20 years ago continues to be a “looming issue” for the Manatee Board of County Commissioners.

With a close friend in Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Florida Senate’s new president, county officials believe it’s the right time to pursue vital state funding to remedy a headache waiting to happen. Piney Point has been a prickly situation for a long while, but it’s not going to fix itself, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said.

“We can stay up on this board and keep ignoring it but one of these days, something is going to happen and then we’re going to sit back and feel like idiots because we didn’t take the bull by the horns and tell the state that we need them to do something about this,” Baugh said during a discussion Tuesday of the county’s top three priorities heading into the 2019 legislative session.

The meeting came just one day before county commissioners from across the state attended the three-day Florida Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Tallahassee to discuss their counties’ priorities for the next legislative session, which is set to begin March 5.

Commissioners said 2019 would be the perfect chance to call on the state to fund a cleanup project to drain the property’s gypsum stacks. If not, county staff say it’s only a matter of time before another environmental disaster occurs.

Calling on the state to do something about Piney Point fell only behind building a new bridge over the Manatee River and advocating for red tide research and funding.

“I think the bridge should be No. 1 to move the process up faster and I really, truly think with our leadership now if we’re going to get anywhere with Piney Point before something happens, then I think Piney Point should be No. 2,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore. “Our staff reiterated with me that if anything happens in the next year or two, not with the gypsum stacks, but with Bishop Harbor, then that’s going to be our problem. So, I think, really guys, we need to change our focus this time.”

Piney Point previously made headlines in 2011 when 170 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into Bishop Harbor after a gypsum stack and containment pond breached. That situation led to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection spending more than $140 million on cleanup and a $2 million lawsuit filed by Port Manatee for sustained losses.

But Piney Point is far from fixed, commissioners agreed, and the state needs to handle the situation sooner than later.

“I think Piney Point is something that maybe the time is right with what’s been going on in the environment lately,” said Commissioner Stephen Jonsson. “It’s a sensitive thing for a lot of people and there’s no easy solution, but by God, if that dike breaks again we’ve made a mess of Tampa Bay and U.S. 41 and polluted a lot of agricultural fields and this and that. To me, I’d like to see that moved up the list.”

DEP officials say the big issue with the wastewater still sitting on the 267-acre site is that it’s nutrient-rich and could exacerbate algae blooms like red tide if it’s not disposed of properly. Commissioner Reggie Bellamy suggested that the board might be able to consolidate the issue of Piney Point with other environmental issues, such as red tide, in a discussion with DEP.

Getting a hold on the Piney Point problem might be a fine priority for the county to have, but it’s the state’s job to fix it, said Commissioner Betsy Benac.

Aeration ponds in the foreground of the former Piney Point Phosphate Plant in Palmetto in 2004. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“I want to caution my commissioners: It is not our responsibility to clean up Piney Point,” she warned. “Don’t say it. Don’t say we’re responsible because you’re going to get tagged with a very, very bad situation. It is the responsibility, currently, of the state. Yeah, we want to make it our priority, but we don’t want to make it our problem.”

Benac pointed out that the last time the “looming issue” of Piney Point came before the board, there was talk of DEP planning to install a 3,500-foot deep well on the site, which would store billions of gallons of wastewater. At the time, opponents said it could ruin the county’s drinking water and irrigation, but there’s nothing the county could do to prevent its installation should DEP go that route.

According to the draft proposal, the county will request that “the state Department of Environmental Protection prioritize efforts to properly and safely dispose of water currently in the state-owned gypsum stacks at the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant,” and support “sufficient state funding to complete the closure of the gypsum stacks in accordance with Florida Statutes.”

Commissioners are hopeful that their working relationship with Galvano will lead to success in funding much-needed Manatee projects, like Piney Point. At the top of their list, though, is a replacement for the aging DeSoto Bridge.

Bridging the gap

“Manatee County supports the expedited replacement of the DeSoto Bridge and FDOT efforts to identify increased north/south capacity,” reads the county’s No. 1 legislative priority. “The DeSoto Bridge, constructed in 1957, is at the end of its service life and maintenance costs continue to rise.”

During her bid for re-election, Whitmore suggested that moving the project up would be a key issue moving forward.

FDOT bridge proposal file 2
Could downtown Bradenton businesses on First Street survive underneath a flyover bridge that would take one third of all traffic coming into Bradenton and pass them through overhead? Officials don’t think so and want FDOT to further detail other alternatives for a possible new bridge elsewhere.

If commissioners are successful, it won’t be the first time they were able to roll up their sleeves and bump a project up the board. Manatee’s board made similar magic happen with the diverging diamond project along Interstate 75. That project wasn’t due until 2025, but commissioners were able to lead a charge shaving years off the completion date.

Public and political opinion is favoring an elevated bridge concept to replace the DeSoto Bridge.

As it stands, the Florida Department of Transportation’s project development and environmental (PD&E) study won’t be funded until 2023, with a bridge being built within 15 years. That timeline leaves much to be desired, commissioners said.

“We know that we have two years to make a difference on some of the things that we’re looking at and we definitely need the bridge,” said Baugh. “We need to get that done.”

Residents lined up Monday to oppose the construction of a flyover, or elevated bridge, between Palmetto and Bradenton. The Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization is studying options on replacing the DeSoto Bridge on the table.

Deciding on a DeSoto Bridge replacement that has majority community support remains a struggle. FDOT has hosted numerous community meetings, but county officials and residents alike have waffled on the presumed frontrunner concept of a flyover bridge that would keep pass-through traffic from congesting the area. The completion of the PD&E could point to a more palatable solution.

Board members ultimately placed Piney Point in their top three priorities, along with red tide and the DeSoto Bridge. There was also talk of adding substance abuse education funding and school hardening funds as backup priorities. Commissioners also agreed to move certain priorities that haven’t made any headway in the past few years to the bottom of their list.

“When we meet with these legislative folks, we have very little time to get across our priorities,” Benac said. “I don’t want too much in there. Things like texting and driving, I don’t know that we’ll win that one. I don’t have folks calling me and asking me to make that a priority in Manatee County. “

The county’s draft may be updated prior to the Manatee County Legislative Delegation Meeting on Dec. 19. The 2019 Legislative Session is set to begin March 5.

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