Piney Point's reservoirs hit capacity; water being diverted

PALMETTO -- HRK Holdings LLC has notified state officials that the capacity at Piney Point's contaminated water reservoirs is full.

The two parties have a contingency plan in place -- at least for now.

But concerns over the potential for toxic runoff, and a repeat disaster of last's year 170-million gallon toxic spill, have never been greater.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection will now allow HRK to funnel some of the contaminated water from Piney Point's main reservoirs into a separate tank never designed for those purposes. The DEP did not specify the capacity of the tank.

The emergency plumbing is a quick fix aimed to prevent a catastrophe that could arise if Tropical Storm Isaac dumps several inches of rain on the former fertilizer processing plant next week. An estimated 13 million cubic yards of water could be released if the stacks were to fail.

The relief should temporarily prevent the stacks from breaking, according to the DEP. A long-term solution still awaits.

"The transfer of contaminated process water into this reservoir should be based on the timing and amount that would be necessary to avoid an unpermitted discharge of process water to surface waters of the state," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email to the Bradenton Herald. "The authorization will enable HRK to meet their obligations in the proper management of the phosphogypsum stack system on HRK's property."

Now battling Chapter 11 bankruptcy, HRK has failed to satisfy a number of state maintenance requirements at Piney Point since leaks in the gypsum stack liners last year spilled 170 million gallons of toxic water into Bishop Harbor during a Port Manatee dredging project that went wrong.

With fewer assets than outstanding liabilities, many stakeholders now fear the embattled firm will crumble before the dredging disposal facility is safely shut down.

HRK officials did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

But even if the company had cash in its back pocket, it has previously refused to accept financial responsibility for the spill and its environmental fallout.

DEP officials warned HRK this week that eight deficiencies at the property outlined in a June 15 letter remain unaddressed.

Those issues range from punctures in the liner of a storm water ditch to dredge soil compartments that have not been regraded.

High levels of ammonia still sit in an on-site drainage ditch. Watershed on the property remains contaminated with dredging sediment, according to state records.

HRK has yet to submit a proper water management plan, which was first due to the state in February.

"Most of the noncompliance allegations in (the DEP) letter relate to leaks which have occurred in the phosphogypsum stack system on the site," HRK CEO Jordan Levy wrote in response to the state's request.

"FDEP, through its consultants and contractors, was responsible and remains liable for addressing the liner failures as part of its closure duties at the site ... HRK does not have the financial resources to address the critical conditions that currently exist."

While this maximum water level has been reached, 3.2 feet of freeboard remain in the reservoir. Freeboard is the vertical distance between the water level in the reservoir and the crest, or the lowest point of the embankment.

The emergency stopgap approved by DEP officials this week will at least prevent heavy rainfall from sending the toxic runoff into Bishop Harbor on Tampa Bay.

HRK must file a plan to safely remove the acidic water from that temporary storage compartment within 30 days.

But the long-term threat still looms.

The water that has been sitting in the current reservoirs is considered toxic from its exposure to phosphate, ammonia, phosphorus, nitrogen and other highly radioactive waste from the processed fertilizer -- all of which have been known to trigger algae blooms that can become deadly for aquatic wildlife.

Even with the quick water reroute, environmental groups now question whether the stacks at Piney Point could survive a tropical storm the strength of Isaac, or another that could follow.

"It doesn't get much worse than this," said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88. "We're in a dire situation. Whether or not there will be damage into Bishop Harbor is now a question of which way the wind blows and how much rain will come down."

A series of Bradenton Herald reports show last year's toxic spill could have been averted had the state stopped the dredging project when a tear was discovered in the liner months before a similar rupture then polluted the harbor. HRK and state officials never notified port staff of any previous problems before the disaster.

The DEP also never applied a commonly used protective dirt cover on the exterior of the gypsum stack, which could have prevented some damage that's believed to have contributed to the rips, reports show.

The DEP has since opened an internal inquiry into its handling of Piney Point.

"Those liners aren't that thick," said Ron Mincey, division manager of contract dredging for Jahna Industries in Lakeland, who is familiar with the Piney Point situation. "You needed to put 2 or 3 feet of material on the liner for protection."

The DEP already reduced HRK's mortgage obligation by $2.6 million after the company promised to take over the state's responsibility of draining water out of the gypsum stacks.

If HRK cannot meet its remaining maintenance obligation at Piney Point, the DEP has said Florida taxpayers will.

An estimated $15.8 million worth of environmental cleanup remains at Piney Point, including $339,282 for immediate water management. HRK has less than that in the bank, records show.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.