Piney Point’s owner has a new plan to clean up the site, but it might take a while

The company in charge of Piney Point has proposed a long-term plan that would help finance the cleaning of two large reservoirs containing process water from the old phosphogypsum stack operation.

John Coates, a project manager with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, presented the Board of County Commissioners with the latest developments at the site, which closed in 2001. If nothing is done to remove the process water from the site, it will surely fill up and spill over, Coates said.

HRK Holdings, which took control of the land years after the previous owner filed for bankruptcy, has brought up an idea to fill one of the reservoirs on the site, but it wouldn’t bring the desired result for years to come.

Coates explained that HRK has floated a plan to bring in about 750,000 tons of bottom ash and fly ash, byproducts of burned coal, to fill a 50-acre reservoir that currently contains seawater that was pumped in after a Port Manatee berth expansion project.

DEP has not approved the project yet, however, and Coates assured the board that whatever happens on the site, which is directly across the street from Port Manatee, must be “environmentally sound.” While commissioners won’t be the deciding body on any of the plans on the privately owned land, he welcomed an ongoing dialogue between his department and county commissioners.

Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace said she had no issue with HRK moving to fill the reservoir with ash, which Coates explained would serve as a cap and result in clean stormwater runoff.

“In my mind, HRK is going to be paid to take the fly ash. The port will be paid to have it come through and (HRK) will take some of those proceeds from the money they make to do all this, plus put some in escrow that no one can touch, except for the site in case they go bankrupt, to finish cleaning the water so in 2060, 2065 the water is clean, we can dispense with everything and we all go away happy,” Trace said.

Trace’s explanation was spot-on, Coates said, noting that DEP is still analyzing the project, but plans to hold HRK accountable for the long-term care of the land. According to Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras, the port previously paid $2 million to store dredged materials during the construction of Berth 12.

On HRK’s website, a map of the nearly 670 acres of land lists the reservoirs as “undeveloped” land. There are other areas on the site used for manufacturing, industrial fabrication and bulk storage.

“The property is ideally suited for bulk dry and liquid product storage,” the website boasts.

Coates also addressed rumors of an underground injection control well, which has been recommended after studies of the property. HRK has not filed an application to bring one to the site, and DEP promised to alert the commission if it does.

“I really do believe this isn’t our issue,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore said. “It’s HRK’s and it’s the state’s, but we are totally involved. This is our harbor and this is our environment, so we all need to be talking.”

Bill Clague, with the County Attorney’s Office, said it’s a good idea for the county to remain informed, but if the county disagrees with an idea that moves forward, their legal recourse would be to file an objection. However, he warned that courts have tended to apply deference to the state in similar instances.

The studies also recommended the process water be removed from the site by enhanced spray evaporation, which uses a system to spray water into the air in an effort to increase its surface contact with the sun, leading to quicker evaporation.

The pressing question during public comment was whether there was enough in the escrow account for DEP to take over the project, if necessary. According to Coates, there’s about $4 million in the account right now, which the department estimates isn’t enough to get rid of the 630 million gallons of water that remain on the site.

Should DEP allow HRK to use ash to fill the seawater reservoir, the future of the area could be bright. When Trace asked if solar panels could be placed on top of the ash fill, Coates indicated that it could be one use for the land.

“There’s a lot of interest from (Tampa Electric Company) in solar power projects,” Coates said. “There is discussion about whether solar could be used in the area. It’s a large footprint that could be put into some use like that, but the department would have to make sure the integrity of the compartment could handle it.”