Florida trys to avoid environmental threat

Associated Press

PINEY POINT, Fla. — The state this week will try to clean up the Piney Point fertilizer plant, spraying millions of gallons of wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico to try to avert what one state regulator calls “one of the biggest environmental threats in Florida history.”

State officials knew in 1995 that the owner, Mulberry Corp., was struggling and if it went under, the state would be stuck with hundreds of millions of gallons of acidic wastewater in gypsum stacks on the edge of Tampa Bay.

But according to a review of files by the St. Petersburg Times, the state didn’t act on warnings that the company was in trouble and didn’t do enough to prevent an environmental hazard.

State officials fear the wastewater will spill into Tampa Bay, destroying plant and animal life for miles.

So this week they plan to treat the waste, load it on a barge, and spray it into the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated cost of $140 million.

Critics — including some in the phosphate industry — say the Department of Environmental Protection didn’t go after the company soon enough.

“Did they have enough authority to shut Piney Point down? I think they did,” said Bob Hugli of the Florida Phosphate Council. “I don’t know why they waited so long.”

But DEP Deputy Secretary Allan Bedwell said regulators did all they could under state law.

The plant is in Manatee County, a mile from Bishop Harbor on Tampa Bay.

Production of phosphate fertilizer creates a radioactive byproduct called phosphogypsum, which is stacked into sandy mountains. The stacks form dikes, creating holding ponds for radioactive water that is another byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing. Piney Point’s two phosphogypsum stacks — the walls of the ponds — are 50 to 70 feet high.

The biggest potential danger is that heavy rains will overflow the holding ponds, sending untreated radioactive water into the watershed that runs into the bay.

When a fertilizer plant is running, the plant reuses the water and rainfall isn’t usually a threat to create a spill. But Piney Point was idle for much of the 1990s, requiring continuous use of pumps to keep water at safe levels. If the pumps fail, the water would likely overflow.

In 1991, one DEP official suggested going to court to close the ponds, the newspaper found. But the state didn’t. In 1993, new owners Mulberry took over and promised to restart production, but didn’t.

State rules say a stack that sits idle for more than a year should be closed permanently, the water drained and the top covered. But DEP never enforced the rule at Piney Point because the company promised to revive the plant.

Several times the company managed to avoid having to clean up the stacks, promising to revive production. But by January 2000 Mulberry had shut down all operations.