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Governor orders permanent closure of Piney Point

PALMETTO – State leaders are committing financial resources for the ongoing Piney Point response efforts and the implementation of a long-term plan to permanently close the property.

The Piney Point property is owned by HRK Holdings. The company purchased the property in 2006. A phosphate production facility operated on that site from 1966 to 1999.

On Tuesday, April 13, Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Noah Valenstein participated in a press conference at the Piney Point property. State Sen. Jim Boyd (R-Manatee), State Rep. Will Robinson (R-Manatee), acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes and all seven county commissioners attended the press conference but did not address the media.

Governor orders permanent closure of Piney Point
Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the permanent closure of the Piney Point property. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Regarding the initial state response that included DEP, the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the Florida National Guard, DeSantis noted the controlled discharge of containment stack water into Tampa Bay was stopped within seven days.

The governor then addressed his plans moving forward.

“We want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story. Today, I’m directing the Department of Environmental Protection to create a plan to close Piney Point. I’ve requested that DEP’s team of engineers and scientists develop plans for the permanent closure of this site, including identifying necessary resources to do so. This will ensure the state is moving forward with a plausible scientific plan toward closure,” DeSantis said.

“I’m redirecting $15.4 million from existing appropriations at DEP to use innovative technologies to pre-treat water at the site for nutrients so that in the event that further controlled discharges are needed, any potential adverse environmental impacts such as algae blooms and fish kills are mitigated,” DeSantis said.

“I’m further directing DEP to fully investigate the incidents here at Piney Point to take any and all legal actions to ensure we hold HRK and the other actors fully accountable,” the governor said.

Governor orders permanent closure of Piney Point
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson addressed the state Legislature’s Piney Point funding efforts. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Speaking next, Simpson addressed the state Legislature’s efforts.

“This year we’re going to appropriate $100 million for the initial funding. By the end of the year, we hope to get a full closure plan with a fully-funded amount that may be required; and then come back next year and have a fully-funded plan,” he said.

DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein also spoke about holding HRK Holdings responsible for the environmental and economic impacts caused by the breach of the Piney Point containment stack.

“We have a team of attorneys back at Tallahassee that is making sure they take advantage of all the information we’re collecting and then put together a case to hold HRK fully accountable. We are putting every effort to hold folks accountable, regardless or not of a particular corporation’s circumstances,” he said.

After Tuesday’s press conference, Port Manatee Director of Communications Virginia Zimmermann provided The Sun with a tour of the Berth 12 area where the Piney Point water was discharged into Tampa Bay through an inland canal that helped move the discharged water into the deep water shipping channel. Zimmermann said the port remained fully operational while the Piney Point crisis played out.

According to DEP, about 215 million gallons of water containing elevated levels of nitrates and phosphates were discharged into Tampa Bay. Phosphates and nitrates are primary ingredients in fertilizer and concerns linger regarding the potential environmental impact of discharging that much nutrient-rich water into Tampa Bay.

Governor orders permanent closure of Piney Point
The Piney Point discharge entered the shipping channel and Tampa Bay at Port Manatee’s Berth 12. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

The controlled discharge began on March 31 after a breach was identified in one of the three Piney Point phosphogypsum containment stacks. DEP refers to the breached gyp stack that resembles a small lake as the “NGS-South compartment.”

Another leak

According to DEP’s daily update on Saturday, April 17, approximately 205 million gallons remained in the NGS-South compartment and DEP was preparing to manage increased stormwater on the Piney Point property ahead of weather forecasts predicting rain and windy conditions early this week.

According to Friday’s update, members of the University of South Florida’s School of Geosciences began using bathymetric equipment that day to survey the gyp stack and further assess repairs previously made to its submerged liner.

Friday’s update noted that on Tuesday, April 13, a low-level flow was observed from the concentrated seepage area on the east wall of the gyp stack: “Dive crews immediately arrived on scene and identified a small detachment underneath the plate placed over the liner seam separation. At this time, the low-level flow rate appears to be consistent and repair efforts continue.”

Environmental concerns

On Saturday, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program Executive Director Dave Tomasko provided his latest insights on the potential environmental impacts.

“We haven’t had discharges in about a week, but it looks like we’ve got a 10-15 square mile algae bloom centered around Piney Point. It’s pretty much in the same location it was for the past week,” he said.

Governor orders permanent closure of Piney Point
This satellite imagery from Thursday, April 15 indicates what’s believed to be an algae bloom. – NOAA | Submitted

Tomasko noted the suspected algae bloom appears on the daily satellite imagery provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He said an algae bloom does not necessarily appear as a large mass of material that can be seen on the water’s surface.

“It’s floating microscopic plants,” he said.

Sharing his own personal observations, Tomasko said, “The water does not look the way it normally does this time of year. The water this time of year is usually blue. It looks kind of brownish to me. In that area around Piney Point, people have been noting the water does not look clear. It looks brownish-green. It looks like there’s elevated phytoplankton and this week we’re going to find out if there’s a more macro-algae out there.”

Tomasko said members of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and other volunteers will be out on the water in several locations conducting surveys of the algae, and also of the seagrass the grows on the bottom of the surveyed bodies of water.

“We’ve got baseline conditions before any of the impact was felt and this coming week we’re going to go see if they’ve changed,” he said. “No one really knows what’s going to happen, but it’s hard to believe there wouldn’t be some sort of impact with all the nutrients put into the water.”

Tomasko’s overall concerns also include the presence of red tide (Karenia brevis) in the area.

“We’ve got red tide in Sarasota. These are low to moderate levels. Red tide is not caused by humans but when it comes into water enriched by human activity that’s a real concern. If this plume lingers around and the red tide encounters it, it’s like adding gasoline to a fire,” Tomasko said.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission red tide current status map, medium levels of Karenia brevis cells (red tide) were measured at Siesta Beach in Sarasota on April 12. That same day, low levels of Karenia brevis cells were detected at the New Pass Dock in Sarasota Bay and at Lido Pass.

An April 12 water sample taken near the Rod and Reel Pier in Anna Maria indicated Karenia brevis cells were not present or were present only at minimal background levels.

The north end of Anna Maria Island is approximately 15 miles from Port Manatee.

Previous seagrass losses

Tomasko also lamented the previous loss of seagrass that occurred in Sarasota Bay prior to the Piney Point crisis.

“We just had our numbers released Friday about the seagrass change. We’re down 18%. We lost more than 2,000 acres of seagrass in the northern part of Sarasota Bay between 2018 and 2020 in the area around Long Bar Pointe. North and south of Long Bar Pointe we’re down 18%, after a 5% loss between 2016 and 2018,” he said.

Tomasko was asked why so much seagrass has been lost near Long Bar Pointe.

“We think it’s because of two red tides in 2016 and 2017. Then you had Hurricane Irma in 2017 and a real strong red tide from 2018 going into 2019. The red tide shuts off the photosynthesis. The seagrass expires because the water is warm and there’s not enough light,” he said.

“The last thing we need is another red tide like we had in 2018-2019. We’re already in a stressed position and now we’ve got red tide to the south and Piney Point to the north. The last thing we need is for people to think the crisis is past. We’re nowhere near close to knowing what the effects are going to be,” he added.

Holmes Beach declaration

On Tuesday, April 13, the Holmes Beach City Commission adopted by city resolution a declaration of a local state of emergency that serves as the city’s preemptive response to the potential environmental and economic impacts of the Piney Point discharge.

“The city commission has determined that the release of contaminated water from the Piney Point facility poses an immediate and real threat to the residents and businesses of the city of Holmes Beach. The city commission supports the allocation of federal and state funds to develop and implement a plan that will eliminate any future threat that the Piney Point facility poses to Tampa Bay and surrounding waters,” the resolution states.

The Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach city commissions declared similar declarations of emergency on April 8.

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