Piney Point has been a big mess in the past. Officials want to avoid future, bigger disaster

The Manatee County Commission and the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation are working to set a workshop session Jan. 16 in a quest to avert another environmental disaster at Piney Point.

Piney Point, a former phosphates facility adjacent to Port Manatee, was abandoned by the bankrupt Mulberry Company in 2001, and has been a frequent cause for concern ever since.

In 2003, about 250 million gallons of Piney Point’s treated wastewater was barged out into the Gulf of Mexico and dumped to avoid a major environmental disaster from overflow. Over a six-year period, about 1.2 billion gallons of treated wastewater was released into Bishop Harbor.

In 2011, a breach of a gypsum stack and containment pond resulted in about 2,700 gallons a minute being dumped into Bishop Harbor.

After the 2011 spill, property owner HRK Holdings went into bankruptcy.

A proposal discussed after the 2011 spill to pump millions of gallons of polluted water deep under ground proved controversial, sparking fears that it could pollute the drinking water aquifer.

“I think we have a really good reason to be concerned,” Susan McMillan, president of citizens group Protect Our Waters Inc., said in 2014.

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Manatee County commissioners met in November to discuss what projects they would ask to be funded by the state during the 2019 legislative session. Piney Point-the closed phosphate mine-cleanup was one of them. Bradenton Herald file photo

One study cataloged 7,000 failures of deep well injection systems over a three-year period, she said.

In 2016, Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County’ parks and natural resources director, warned that Piney Point may be the only plant in Florida without a closure plan or a funding source.

“It is not a Manatee County taxpayer problem, but it is a problem nonetheless and right now we are just ignoring it,” Hunsicker said in 2016.

Piney Point took center stage again most recently in November when Manatee County commissioners discussed their legislative priorities: replacement of the DeSoto Bridge, defusing the threat at Piney Point, and controlling red tide.

The 2019 Legislative Session is set to begin March 5.

Commissioners agreed that they should press for state funding to drain Piney Point’s gypsum stacks before another environmental disaster occurs.

“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,” Commissioner Stephen Jonsson said at the November meeting.

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Aerial of Piney Point phosphate plant in northern Manatee County from 2004. Piney Point has been a source of worry since it was abandoned in 2001 by the bankrupt Mulberry Corporation. Bradenton Herald file photo

Piney Point will likely be one of the more difficult issues that Jonsson will deal with in 2019 as newly elected chair of the county commission.

The date of the Jan. 16 workshop was mentioned Thursday during comments at the end of the Manatee County Port Authority meeting. Manatee County commissioners also sit as port authority members.

The workshop is planned for Port Manatee. A time and location of the workshop has not been announced.