PALMETTO – The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has issued a permit for Manatee County to build a 3,300-foot-deep well to permanently store wastewater from the Piney Point phosphate plant.
The well, already staged for construction at 3105 Buckeye Road, will store treated phosphate processing water, according to Manatee County officials, who announced the Dec. 16 state approval in a press release.
The contaminated water is currently stored in ponds on top of phosphogypsum stacks, one of which is structurally unsound. The potential for the stack’s collapse and the potential flooding of area homes and businesses led FDEP to approve the dumping of 215 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Tampa Bay in March and April. The contaminated water spread throughout Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay, transporting nitrogen and phosphorus that spurred a red tide bloom lasting from April to November, causing fish kills and respiratory irritation.
When the water is removed from the stacks and injected into the well, the stacks are expected to be re-lined, capped and topped with soil and sod, according to the press release.
“This project is one critical element of the necessary water disposal that will enable the ultimate closure of the Piney Point facility once and for all, eliminating the threat from this site to the environment and the community permanently,” according to the press release.
The county applied in April for the permit to build both a storage well and a test well of up to 950 feet deep to monitor drinking water; the permit application states that drinking water in the Floridan aquifer at the site is located about 900 feet underground. The county’s application to build both wells meets all applicable regulations for the protection of groundwater and the environment, according to an FDEP press release, which noted that its review included more than 7,000 public comments.
Among those opposed are five environmental organizations that notified the county on Sept. 30 that they intend to sue the county over the plan.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and our Children’s Earth Foundation have not yet filed the lawsuit.
“However, if we are able to prove the wastewater to be injected is hazardous, we will likely revisit the deep well injection permit,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88 Inc. “Whether we can prove the wastewater is hazardous or not will depend on the courts allowing us to get onsite and take samples. Thus far, we do not have the court’s approval to go on-site to sample.”
The groups previously sued Piney Point owner HRK Holdings LLC, Gov. Ron DeSantis, FDEP Secretary Shawn Hamilton and the Manatee County Port Authority in June over the wastewater dumping earlier this year. A hearing is scheduled on Jan. 26, 2022, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa on motions to dismiss the complaints against the four defendants, who have asked the court for an extension of time at least until Feb. 4, 2022.
HRK defaulted in a separate lawsuit filed by FDEP in August asking the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Manatee County for injunctive relief to prevent any more discharges of wastewater from Piney Point, and claiming that HRK failed to safely operate the gyp stacks to protect surface and groundwater.
HRK has been in receivership since August; it also is in bankruptcy and is the subject of a repossession.
The April permit request by Manatee County was approved in draft form on Sept. 1 by FDEP, which completed its review by Nov. 24, issuing the permit on Dec. 16, when county officials announced in a press release that “Crews are already working to prepare for the drilling of the deep well,” expected to be completed by late 2022.
“We will proceed expeditiously to see this fully operational as soon as possible,” County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes said in the press release.
“Emergency funding from the state of Florida is helping pay for the fast-tracked plans, with millions of dollars earmarked for the cleanup and closure,” according to the press release.
Six other deep-well injection sites exist in Manatee County – one operated privately, one operated by the city of Bradenton and four operated by Manatee County.
“This is a proven technology,” county Utilities Director Mike Gore said in a press release. “It’s been a tried and true method to safely dispose of effluent for over three decades.”
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