The disaster at Piney Point may have faded from the headlines, but that’s hardly the end of the story.
The gypsum stack is still there, and the water level is so high it could overflow if there’s a major rain event. The Department of Environmental Protection keeps daily data, hoping to avoid another spill by monitoring the water level, while the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, FWC, and the Florida Department of Health keep a watchful eye on algal blooms and water quality.
On August 5, the DEP filed suit against the owner of the abandoned site, HRK Holdings, deeming them responsible for the leak that resulted in more than 200 million gallons of untreated wastewater dumped into Tampa Bay. The DEP says the lawsuit will be the “final chapter for the Piney Point site.”
Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, says it’s too early to assess the damage.
“There was some loss of seagrass between 2018 to 2020, but it will be some time before we can determine recent seagrass damage,” he said. “We certainly expect to know by year’s end. Sea grass is affected by poor water quality, which is what we monitor in the bay.”
While the massive red tide levels that persisted earlier this summer – another potential effect of the Piney Point spill – have subsided in Tampa Bay, Sherwood said this year was certainly unique.
“There hasn’t been a [major] incident with red tide in Tampa Bay since the 1970s,” he said. “We won’t know the effects on the fisheries for two or three years, because the bay is a nursery for many juvenile fish, like snook, so it’s a long-term issue. The big news is that Piney Point is now in receivership which will oversee a final closure.”
Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity in St. Petersburg, said they are keeping a close eye on the site after years of DEP paying little attention
“This disaster is 20 years in the making,” said Lopez. “We’re still where we were. They need to do right for people, not harm them.”
Lopez said there are messages showing that HRK Holdings was talking to the DEP for 12 months before the spill, but there was no action.
According to the DEP website, currently there are 27 phosphate mines in Florida, covering more than 450,000 acres. Nine mines are currently active and nine mines are 100 percent reclaimed and released from reclamation obligations. The remaining mines are either not started or are shut down. Phosphate mines typically range in size from approximately 5,000 to 100,000 acres.
So far 228 trucks have hauled approximately 1,440,480 gallons of process water from Piney Point to the Manatee County Southeast Water Reclamation Facility, leaving approximately 264 million gallons remaining in the Piney Point stack’s south compartment.
In June, the Center for Biological Diversity and several other conservation groups filed a lawsuit against Governor Ron DeSantis, the acting secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, HRK Holdings, LLC and the Manatee County Port Authority for releasing hundreds of tons of pollutants into Tampa Bay and groundwater, which could ultimately reach the Floridan Aquifer, the main source of Florida’s drinking water.
The current plan for Piney Point’s closing is underway, as the DEP works with the new receiver to permanently remove the water. The Manatee County commissioners approved plans for a deep injection well that would accept treated water – that’s water that’s been “cleaned” to remove toxins.
But in the meantime, Mosaic’s mine in Mulberry recently applied to expand the current gypstack from 230 acres to 706. Opponents have setup a Facebook page to protest. The expansion is under review and still in the public comment stage.
Commenting on the gypstacks remaining in central Florida, Lopez said they all have a record of failure.
“There are many violations,” she said. “It’s like they have a license to pollute.”