A leaking radioactive mound led to a crisis in Florida. What’s next for the toxic site?
Two years after Manatee County’s environmental disaster made national headlines, the long-neglected Piney Point site is closer than ever to final closure.
When a giant pond began leaking and threatened to collapse in April 2021, state leaders were forced to authorize the release of 215 million gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay. With an injection of $100 million in state funding and court-appointed leadership, site operators are on track to ensure that never happens again.
Ever since the situation at the former phosphate processing plant spun out of control, there has been a renewed focus on shutting the once-abandoned property down for good. And there has been significant progress.
“We’ve had good, tangible progress that has given us all optimism,” said Herbert Donica, the court-appointed receiver who is in charge of day-to-day operations at Piney Point.
In early April, site operators plan to begin draining the largest pond — the one that began leaking in 2021 — into a deep injection well. Donica described that development as a “sigh of relief.”
“Once we get that water going and get the water level down, then we’ll free up all of our people to do what’s necessary to push forward with the closure,” said Donica. “That’s a big deal to me.”
In a statement provided to the Bradenton Herald on Tuesday evening, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees Piney Point, says it remains committed to closing the facility “as soon as possible.”
Signs of progress
In the coming weeks, Piney Point is set to hit several milestones. The first pond is on track to be filled with sand and topped with grass in May.
Site operators say they hope to replicate that technique for the larger ponds that are still holding water — but it’s going to take some time.
Starting in early April, Piney Point operators will begin draining the largest pond — the one that began leaking in 2021 — into Manatee County Government’s newly constructed deep injection well that will store the water 3,300 feet underground.
“The well will be used to safely dispose of Piney Point’s process water into a confined saltwater aquifer over a half mile below the surface,” the county said in a press release.
In previous presentations, environmental geologists said the injection well would allow the water to undergo a natural treatment process before it resurfaces in the Gulf of Mexico 100,000 years later, free of any contamination.
“We are excited to write the final chapter of this Piney Point story,” said Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge. “The teamwork involved in this important project — from the receiver to the DEP, to the consultants and our hard-working staff — have brought this to fruition.”
Ever since the 2021 incident, property managers have been working to clean the water remaining in Piney Point’s largest pond. According to site manager Jeff Barath, 98% of the nitrogen and phosphorus have been removed from the water.
As of late March, there are more than 270 million gallons remaining in that pond. Because the well is rated to handle 1 million gallons a day, it will take several months to drain it.
However, getting started on the deep well injection removal will buy site operators precious time ahead of the summer months.
“That pump can ramp up to possibly as much as 1 million gallons a day. Anything close to that will get us out of what I call the danger zone for the rainy season,” Donica explained.
The water in the remaining ponds will be processed through Manatee County’s $18 million water treatment facility on Buckeye Road before entering the deep injection well.
‘An ugly start’
The industrial park on Manatee County’s northern border has a troubled past. In 1966, Piney Point opened as a facility that accepted phosphate and processed it to extract phosphorus, a key ingredient in fertilizer. The process, however, leaves behind harmful, radioactive material called phosphogypsum.
Donica notes that Piney Point’s grand opening predates both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“This plant got off to an ugly start. It’s just that simple. That’s why it needs to close,” Donica said.
For nearly 40 years, Piney Point refined a steady stream of phosphate rock. The result of that process is what makes the property a hazard.
Phosphogypsum, which is created as a byproduct of phosphate processing, is radioactive and cannot be used for any other purpose. At Piney Point, it is piled into enormous mounds called phosphogypsum stacks. At the top of those stacks are large ponds holding water that became contaminated from phosphate refinement.
Those ponds, which cover dozens of acres at Piney Point, are the biggest problem on the property. Over the years, local leaders and property owners struggled to come up with a suitable plan that disposes of the water at a faster rate than the rainfall it collects.
The site went inactive after the former owners went bankrupt in 2001, leaving Piney Point under FDEP’s control. In 2006, HRK Holdings, LLC, acquired the property and became responsible for site maintenance.
Two years ago, the largest pond neared maximum capacity, holding roughly 480 million gallons of contaminated water, before a tear in the liner threatened to send all of that water rushing out into the surrounding area.
SeaPort Manatee, the Manatee County Jail and a FedEx distribution center are located near the Piney Point industrial park, just south of the Manatee-Hillsborough border on U.S. 41.
Facing an emergency situation, state leaders authorized the release of 215 million gallons — enough water to fill 325 Olympic-sized swimming pools — into Tampa Bay.
Water quality experts pointed to the Piney Point release, which contained high levels of nutrients, as a major contributing factor to a red tide bloom that occurred later that summer.
What happens next?
According to the closure plan approved by FDEP, a final shutdown at Piney Point isn’t expected until the end of 2024. It will take several months to drain the remaining ponds before they are filled with millions of cubic yards of sand and soil.
Dredge material in the largest pond, which came from the 2012 expansion of SeaPort Manatee, adds another complication. Once the pond level is low enough, crews will fill the dredge material into mesh bags and sit them on the edge of the pond, allowing that excess water to drain back into the pond, Donica said.
DeSantis directed the Florida Legislature to provide $100 million toward Piney Point’s closure, but more money will be needed to complete the project, FDEP told the Bradenton Herald.
So far, about $44 million has been spent on closure activities, according to FDEP. Based on the closure plan, FDEP estimates the final cost will be close to $185 million and plans to request the additional funding in this year’s state budget.
“I feel confident that when the decision-makers see the progress we have made, it won’t be a problem to get enough money to cross the finish line,” Donica said.