Piney Point Reservoir

Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald, via Associated Press

By Jessica Simmons

Piney Point was originally a phosphate mine and was constructed by Borden Chemical Company in 1966. It is no longer operational, but it still contains multiple large wastewater reservoirs. 

Reports of pollution coming from the site began by 1970 and have continued unabated through present day. Some incidents in the plant’s history include fluoride leaks that caused fish kills in Tampa Bay and tainted cattle pasture grasses, a 23,000-gallon sulfuric acid leak that forced the evacuation of hundreds of people in the Port Manatee area, the accidental release of a sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide acid cloud that killed three people and sickened dozens, and a 2011 event that should have served as a warning of what would happen this year. 

The plant has changed hands four times since 1966. A series of financial problems, bankruptcies, and abandonments contributed to inadequate maintenance of the facility. It is currently owned by HRK Holdings LLC. 

Between 2005 and 2009 HRK lined stacks and then allowed the dumping of material dredged from Port Manatee into them. These stacks were originally designed to store rainwater. The added pressure from the dredging material led directly to a rupture in 2011.

In 2013 a plan was proposed to use a ground injection method to direct the water underground to prevent it from continuing to leak into Port Manatee, but ultimately no action was taken. Now, there are no good options left.

Glenn Compton, director of Manasota-88, an environmental watchdog group, said to WTSP news of Tampa “I’m not surprised at all. As far as what’s happened. This has been in the making for decades, you can probably trace the problems all the way back into the 1960s.”

Now water is being released to empty out the reservoir to prevent a complete collapse that would have resulted in a “20 ft. wall” of contaminated water. Concerns over this kind of collapse spurred the April 3rd emergency declaration and evacuations of nearby residents in Manatee, Hillsborough, and Pinellas counties. While the danger of collapse has passed, that is because the wastewater has been discharged into Port Manatee.

In 2004 the state of Florida stopped the discharge of wastewater from the plant because it was causing harmful algae blooms. Now these releases are the only way to prevent a collapse. We know from the nature of the facility that phosphate levels are likely high. Phosphate is a key ingredient in fertilizers, and we know that excess nutrients in water fuel algae blooms. What we don’t know are the exact levels of what nutrients or contaminants are in the water. 

John Cassani of Calusa Waterkeeper told USA Today “It does seem like if they pump that volume of water into Tampa Bay that it could very likely stimulate an algae bloom. But they’re not telling us the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. Usually you look at concentrations, and they’re not giving us that data.” While Port Manatee and Tampa Bay are quite a bit north of Lee County, a red tide bloom anywhere from Tampa to the Florida Keys has the potential to spread through the entire region.

Governor DeSantis has designated $15.4 million in Department of Environmental Protection funds to treat the water as the necessary discharges continue and to study how the site can be safely, finally, shut down. The DEP reports that the Port Manatee discharges have ceased for now, they are monitoring and sampling the surrounding water, no fish kills have yet been reported, and ways to treat the water are being examined. 

DeSantis says, “Rigorous water quality monitoring will continue so the state can assess any potential ecological impact from this event. This data will be used by DEP as they move forward with enforcement to hold HRK accountable. And I’m further directing DEP to fully investigate the incidents here at Piney Point and to take any and all legal actions to ensure we hold HRK and any other actors fully accountable.” Who are these “other actors” though, when this site has been a known problem for fifty years?

Jessica Simmons

Community Staff Writer

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