Piney Point threatens Tampa Bay, but other FL estuaries are in trouble, too

April 6, 2021 7:00 am

The state has been riveted on the drama unfolding at the Piney Point phosphate mining site near Tampa Bay, but the state is littered with similar facilities, like the one pictured here, that threaten other coastal estuaries. Credit: Getty Images

Even if you live outside of Florida, you’ve probably heard of Tampa Bay. It’s a popular, if if somewhat vague, sports team “location.” The Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning play in Tampa, but the World Series also-ran Tampa Bay Rays play in St. Petersburg (at least for now).

There’s also a real Tampa Bay, a 400-square-mile body of water that separates Tampa, Clearwater, and St. Petersburg. It’s the state’s largest estuary, meaning it’s full of fish and crabs and seagrass and dolphins and manatees, not to mention seabirds of every kind.

And right now, they’re all facing a potential disaster.

There’s a highly specific reason for this, summed up in two words: Piney Point. Generally speaking, though, what’s happened boils down to this nearly ironclad rule regarding life in Florida: Our state’s leaders have consistently put the convenience of industry ahead of the cleanliness of our waterways.

Disaster is the price we pay for those messed up priorities, over and over.

Right now, we have a massive phosphogypsum stack at the 676-acre Piney Point fertilizer plant site in Manatee County that’s gone all wobbly. There was a pond full of 480 million gallons of polluted water on top of the stack, and it is now spewing out a steady stream of that stuff into a creek that flows into a nearby aquatic preserve called Bishop Harbor.

Throughout Easter weekend the stack, which is made of radioactive waste left from turning phosphate into fertilizer, threatened to collapse and dump millions of gallons of acidic, nutrient-laden liquid into Tampa Bay.

None of this should have been a surprise. The current owner of Piney Point, HRK Holdings (which has been in and out of bankruptcy) notified county officials months ago that it was in trouble again and headed for a calamity. But, as has been true throughout Piney Point’s history, the people in charge failed to take action in time.

Thus, during this past weekend, Manatee County officials ordered more than 300 families living nearby to evacuate, and the sheriff even emptied out his jail’s first floor of inmates in case a 20-foot wave of nastiness came rolling their way.

Meanwhile work crews pumped out the polluted water from the top of the gyp stack out as fast as they could to relieve the pressure on the stack, trying to prevent a collapse. As of Monday, they had 300 million gallons left to deal with.

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Screenshot/Florida Channel.

Gov. Ron DeSantis flew over the site Sunday morning in a helicopter and then held a rather remarkable press conference. What made it remarkable is that for the first time I can recall in his administration, he did not blame the media for something going wrong on his watch.

DeSantis tried to put the best face on things, announcing that the water was not radioactive (because it’s the stack that’s radioactive, not the water). He described the stuff being pumped out as “primarily saltwater” but also stormwater and “legacy process water.”

Another term for “legacy process water” is “that awful stuff that’s rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, and ammonia left over after processing phosphate rock into fertilizer, ewwwww, you wouldn’t want to drink that or bathe in it, it’s that nasty.”

Environmental groups were furious about this, of course.

“This is what lax environmental regulation and enforcement gets us,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice. “The situation goes back decades, it turned into the taxpayers’ problem, and the state failed to do what was needed to keep people and the environment safe.”

Members of Congress and legislators weighed in, vowing to investigate what went wrong, as if we didn’t already know that.

Meanwhile Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, and Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson said they will propose the state spend $200 million to completely clean up and shut down the site — using money from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, which Republicans in Congress all opposed.

By Monday, local officials were saying they thought maybe the crisis had been averted.

What they meant was that the imminent catastrophe has been postponed, but the long-term, slow-moving one remains extremely likely.

“We should be looking at 75 to 100 million gallons [pumped into Tampa Bay per day] by the end of the day,” acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said in a press conference. The aptly named Hope meant that as a positive, but that’s not the way I heard it.

I live about a block from a park on Tampa Bay, the real one. And so I worry about what all that pumped-out pollution is about to do to the bay.

Here come the algae blooms

Piney Point has a long history of polluting the water and air around its location near Port Manatee, dating to when Borden — yes, the milk and glue company — built the plant in 1966. Just a year later, Borden was caught dumping waste into Bishop Harbor.

Piney Point has repeatedly changed hands since then, with each owner overseeing at least one pollution incident. At one point the state itself owned the plant and wound up loading millions of gallons of wastewater on board a barge, taking it miles offshore, and spraying it in the Gulf of Mexico.

That was in 2003. That summer, I was one of three reporters who spent days on end digging through documents in Tampa and Tallahassee to chart the history of the place. We wanted to find out how it had become, in the words of a top state official, “one of the biggest environmental threats in Florida history.”

The Tampa Bay region, as photographed by Landsat 8. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over and over, we found, state Department of Environmental Protection officials bent the rules or ignored warnings about problems, just to try to keep the fertilizer business open a little longer. They kept putting what was good for business ahead of what was good for the bay.

Despite that 2003 crisis, state officials failed to drain and shut down Piney Point. It again hit the crisis point in 2011, leading to another dump of polluted water. But once again, nothing changed. There was no long-term fix.

What’s really scary to me is what happened at Piney Point’s sister plant.

In the 1990s, Piney Point was owned by a phosphate company called Mulberry Corp., which also owned a similar facility near the Polk County town of Mulberry. When heavy rains poured down in 1997, a dike broke at the Mulberry plant.

Fifty-six million gallons of acidic wastewater flowed into the Alafia River and killed everything its path for 42 miles. More than 1 million baitfish and shellfish and 72,900 gamefish died, and 377 acres of trees and other vegetation along the riverbank were damaged. The spill even killed alligators. When state officials hit the company with a multimillion-dollar fine, Mulberry declared bankruptcy and walked away from both plants.

The waste now being pumped into Tampa Bay is less acidic than what flowed down the Alafia, according to Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, an agency created by Congress in 1991 to restore the bay. But the stuff going into the bay is still pretty bad.

“This is up to double the amount of nutrient pollution that goes into the bay in a year, and it’s going in over a 10-day period,” he told me Monday. “We’ve had really great water quality in that area up until now. This is definitely a setback.”

The spill in 2011 led to a harmful algae bloom “that pretty much took over the harbor,” he recalled. “There were fish kills.”

We may start seeing a summer re-run from 2011 as soon as a week from now, he said.

In other words, despite the billions of taxpayer dollars that local and state government agencies have spent to clean it up, Tampa Bay will become like other declining estuaries around the state.

The Super Bowl of Super-Clean Estuaries?

Around its coastline Florida has about a dozen estuaries — partially enclosed bodies of water where fresh and saltwater meet to form marshes, mangroves, and lagoons that have been dubbed “the cradle of the ocean.”

Perhaps because there are no major league sports teams known as the Indian River Lagoon Buccaneers, the St. Lucie Rays, or the Charlotte Harbor Lightning, the other estuaries are not as well-known as Tampa Bay.

But they’re facing environmental disasters too.

The Indian River Lagoon estuary is pretty bad. A massive seagrass die-off has killed hundreds of manatees, many of them starving to death. As of March 26, 573 manatees had died, more than double the number that died in the same period last year

In the St. Lucie River’s estuary, pulses of polluted fresh water unleashed from Lake Okeechobee have begun again, which means that area is likely to once again face economically devastating blue-green algae blooms that look like the nastiest guacamole dip you ever saw (and smell far worse).

Meanwhile, in Charlotte Harbor, state officials reported last week detecting a high concentration of red tide toxic algae blooming. Could it be a precursor to another months-long bloom that kills fish and dolphins and chases away tourists, as happened with the bloom that started in 2017 and lasted until early 2019? Good Lord! Let’s hope not.

Down at the state’s southernmost tip you find another estuary, Florida Bay, which has suffered from decreased freshwater flows, pollution from nutrients, and a crippling increase in saltiness that killed off seagrass.

Do you see the pattern here? In each case, pollution from agriculture and development has been allowed to contaminate these vital bodies of water. In each case, you could take that Earthjustice attorney’s comment about lax regulation at Piney Point and plop it in and it would still be valid.

In each case, the justification is that these are big businesses, and any stringent regulatory effort would put a crimp in their profits, and we can’t have that, can we?.

But that ignores another fact of life in Florida: Each of these estuaries is commercially important too — important for fishing and boating and tourism, to name a few. Each of those industries depends on healthy ecosystems for their continued profit.

I wonder if there’s a way to tie this in with sports, so the people who could fix these problems would feel an incentive to do their jobs. We could hold a Super Bowl of Super Clean Estuaries and give out fancy rings, or maybe hold a parade for the winner of the Stanley Cupful of Drinkable Water.

I would be delighted to buy a ticket or two for one of those. Wouldn’t you?

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.