It’s hard to ignore the recent impending disaster at the old Piney Point gypsum stack in Manatee County. Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on April 3 after the pond atop the stack started leaking. As fears rose that the 480 million gallons of nutrient-laced water could engulf the area, several hundred nearby residents were evacuated, and U.S. 41 was closed.
Now folks are back in their homes, roads are open. The leak’s still there, but the Florida Department of Environmental Protection lowered the water level, pumping out millions of gallons into a nearby creek flowing to Tampa Bay.
Crisis averted, right?
Longtime Concerns Engulf Phosphate Mining
Environmentalist and native Floridian Terry Fortner said the incident “has been a crash course for the general public as we learn the history of Piney Point.”
Fortner, a founding member of Friends of Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserves, Inc., said it’s evident DEP officials “have bent the rules and ignored warnings about Piney Point’s problems for nearly five decades, since it was built in 1966 to keep the fertilizer business open a little longer.”
While immediate disaster seems narrowly avoided, the long-term effects are still unknown.
“The threat of a 20-foot inundation put lives in immediate danger and caused Manatee County neighbors, and citizens across Florida, to realize what’s been overlooked in our neighborhood,” Fortner added.
What About the Bay?
“We are very concerned about the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus discharged,” said Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. “We fear the amount of nutrients will fuel algal and macroalgal blooms in the bay. That’s where our immediate attention is focused: ramping up water quality, sediment quality and other environmental monitoring necessary to generate a recent baseline to assess further impacts down the road.”
Currently, Sherwood said, the USF Ocean Circulation Lab headed by Dr. Ronald H. Weissberg is working on forecasts to further aid our efforts and understanding in this regard, but it may take time before we understand the true impact.
A Threat to Aquaculture
In the last 15 years, efforts to enhance water quality in Tampa Bay have been successful. There’s shellfish farming the first time since the 1950s, and acres of seagrass are thriving, improving habitat for wildlife.
For local oyster farmer Brian Rosegger, the Piney Point release is definitely a concern.
“I’m not an alarmist, but when something happens in the bay, we’re concerned,” said Rosseger, who leases underwater land from the state for his Lost Coast Oyster farm. “It threatens our clean water.”
Rosegger said he’s not closed, but “as a good steward we’re not harvesting until we get a clean water report.”
According to the DEP, the released water is not toxic, but it’s full of nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia. It’s the massive amount of nutrients that could cause a harmful algae bloom. No one wants a repeat of the Red Tide event of 2018 that persisted for over a year, costing the state millions in lost revenue from fisheries and tourism dollars. It was a death knell for many coastal businesses.
“An algae bloom potentially affects seagrass [from shading] and wildlife resources by reducing dissolved oxygen levels once the blooms die,” said Sherwood. “It depends upon how much nutrients are retained and recycled in the bay… understanding where the plume of the discharge is circulated and diluted in the bay is crucial.”
And Piney Point’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are 25 gypsum stacks looming around the state, and 22 of them are right in our backyard, peppered around Polk County in the once-rural towns of Mulberry and Bartow. They string southward, expanding through southern Hillsborough and Manatee Counties through an area old-timers call Bone Valley for its trove of Mesozoic fossils: Mastodon teeth and other prehistoric fossils from a time when the Florida peninsula was rising up from the sea.
Across central Florida gypsum ponds are a bright, deep teal. They are at risk for overflows during hurricanes and heavy rains. In 2016 a giant sinkhole near Mulberry developed under a stack owed by Mosaic, allowing 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the Floridan aquifer, our source of drinking water.
And on April 5, Polk County commissioners renewed a two-year permit for Mosaic’s phosphate mines near South Fort Meade, amid protests from concerned citizens.
“As citizens we must face up to the realization that pollution from agriculture and development is allowed to contaminate Florida’s vital bodies of water, over and over again” said Fortner. “Piney Point is a poster child for what is going on throughout the state.”
Closing Piney Point
At a press conference in Manatee County Tuesday, April 13, DeSantis pledged to fix the Piney Point problem.
“We want this to be the last chapter in the Piney Point story,” he said. “Today I’m directing the DEP to create a plan to close Piney Point … I’ve requested a team of scientists and engineers develop plans for the permanent closure of this site.”
He said this ensures the state has a scientific plan and the resources to close the site permanently. Earlier DeSantis pledged to use funds from the state’s economic recovery allotment for clean up.
According to recent DEP reports, no more water is being released from the leaky pond, and in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers, they are working to assess the damage with submersibles, ground-penetrating radar and drones.
Meanwhile, there’s been no official statement about potential problems with remaining phosphogypsum ponds around the state.
Stay up to date on what’s happening with Piney Point through the new DEP dashboard.