The sewage leak at Piney Point in an old phosphate plant had to happen. Environmentalists have been shouting about it for decades. Experts and local officials knew the danger was imminent. But in typical Florida fashion, we didn’t notice it until it turned into a crisis. We should remember that the crews repaired the leak and the immediate emergency is over.
Most of us know the misfortune. A leak was first detected in one of three stacks of phosphogypsum in the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant in northern Manatee County in late March. Phosphogypsum is a by-product of fertilizer manufacture and contains radioactive material and other chemicals. With no other place to dump the trash for the phosphate industry, those gyp piles (we have 25 in Florida) have turned to mountains. The tops of these piles become retention basins filled with highly acidic water that contains elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphate.
The Piney Point pond contained 480 million gallons of sewage when the leak occurred. Manatee County officials and government officials feared the entire reservoir could fail and released a 20-foot wall of polluted water into nearby homes and businesses. They evacuated 300 people, blocked roads and diverted 215 gallons into the bay near Port Manatee. Eventually, after decades, the state agreed to finally shut down Piney Point with $ 200 million from President Biden’s Covid-19 bailout.
Crisis averted? Barely. Nobody knows yet how serious this will be for the health of our aquatic environment and marine life. Severe red tide eruptions, decimation of seaweed, and major fish deaths are possible. Environmentalists say the event marks a major setback for Tampa Bay, which after decades of efforts and billions of dollars, was healthier than it has been since the 1970s.
In the meantime, we have yet to deal with the remaining sewage on top of the three stacks at Piney Point. Manatee County’s officials swiftly pursued the highly controversial method of injecting this water into a deep well in our aquifer in a 6: 1 vote and have already approved about $ 10 million to start the process.
I spoke to Glenn Compton of ManaSota-88, a longtime critic of the phosphate industry, and Justin Bloom, founder of Suncoast Waterkeeper, a group dedicated to protecting and restoring our waterways. Both have serious concerns about the method. Injecting this sewage – it is treated, but neither Compton nor Bloom understood what it means or how exactly it is treated – is like closing your eyes and crossing your fingers. Water doesn’t always stay where it should, and those hundreds of millions of gallons could end up in parts of the aquifer used for irrigation and drinking in agriculture.
“Once the groundwater is polluted, it can no longer be cleaned,” says Compton.
This is also the first time the powerful phosphate industry has been given permission to dump its wastewater into the aquifer, a huge relief to the industry as it now has a precedent for what to do with all the other bad things that are Florida sit in piles everywhere.
There are alternatives. Bloom mentions reverse osmosis, which is when the water is treated and then released far into the Gulf, or when it is treated and released into surface waters. There is no perfect answer, but there could be a better and safer answer than deep-well injection.
Bloom says it’s not too late to take a break. Manatee County needs to bring environmental scientists together with engineers to discuss the latest science and technology before they use $ 200 million of our tax dollars to drill a hole in the ground. Out of sight, out of mind, doesn’t work.