MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — The Piney Point problem seemed solved about 15 years ago when the state sold the shuttered phosphate facility to HRK Holdings — but the problems would continue for years to come.
During a recent tour of the property, court-appointed receiver Herb Donica indicated closure, while still years and millions of dollars away.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” Donica said.
That’s news in itself for a star-crossed Piney Point.
A rupture in 2011, as HRK had just begun the ill-advised process of pumping Port Manatee dredge material into one of Piney Pont’s four stacks, put the LLC out of business.
The Army Corps of Engineers warned the state the stack was not engineered to hold dredge material, but the warning was not followed.
A breach in the defunct facility’s southern stack in late March of 2021 prompted the state to allow about 215 million gallons of wastewater to be discharged into the bay. The goal was to prevent a catastrophic collapse that some feared would have sent a wall of water into the community.
Records obtained by 8 on Your Side stated about a year before the 2021 breach, HRK’s engineer had warned the Department of Environmental Protection about the flawed lining.
Donica first became involved with the troubled facility during a 2001 Piney Point bankruptcy case. He knows the facility well but had no idea it would still be open two decades after the facility went out of business.
“I would never have expected that,” Donica said. “It was sold. Then, several things went wrong.”
Donica said he is “proud” of the progress made since he took control of the closure about a year ago.
“Some days it’s one foot forward, two feet back but generally we’ve been able to push the ball uphill and keep it going,” Donica said. “There have been supply chain delays, delays in getting materials. They’ve even had trouble hiring people to work with the driller.”
Donica said the fear of a catrastophic wall of water destroying everything in its path has waned since the rainy season ended.
“Not as much, thank goodness,” Donica said when asked if he still fears the worst. “It could happen again but so far, we’ve been doing well for the past few months.”
Ian brought new concerns including hurricane wind, turning expensive, hard-to-get liner material into a giant sail.
“If we didn’t do anything it’d be somewhere in Polk County,” Donica said. “We worked together and secured the site.”
One step toward closure, is one of the stacks that is now dry and going through the process of getting capped. Once the stacks are dredged and drained, they will be covered in layers of sand, textile material, soil, a liner, more soil, and then grass, aimed at sealing in the toxins.
In addition, the water will be cleaned in a treatment plant before it’s injected into a 3,300-foot deep well. But the treatment and injection process was delayed until next year. However, environmentalists like ManaSota 88 Chairman, Glenn Compton, fear the worst.
“Piney Point is leaving behind a legacy of not only pollution of decades of surface water in Tampa Bay,” Compton said. “But now we’re going to have decades if not generations of pollution of the groundwater too.”
ManaSota 88 is one of several environmental groups that is currently suing Manatee County over the plan to inject the stack water into the deep well.
Donica said the injection process is ready to begin relatively soon on a controlled, 300,000 gallons a day pace. He said it could be July before the expected 2 million gallons a day rate starts.
Donica admitted he was once against the deep well idea, but said he now realizes pumping the water below the aquifer — below what we drink — is the best alternative.
“I believe it’s the safest idea,” Donica said.
At one point, the budget for the closure was pegged around $100 million.
“Probably so,” Donica said when asked if the total cost will rise about that estimate. “The dredging is the factor we’ve been unable to get our arms around.”
Donica expects competitive bids from contractors who he said want to get “gold stars” for helping close Piney Point.