It has now been just about a year since a gaping hole in the shuttered fertilizer facility’s southern stack sent toxic water into the environment. State leaders decided pumping about 215 million gallons of stack water into the bay was the best way to avoid a catastrophic collapse that could have sent a wall of water into the community.
Critics blamed the nitrogen-rich water for fueling last summer’s red tide but there was never a scientific consensus on the disaster’s impact.
Job one continues to be draining the stacks, with the controversial deep well expected to be operational as early as the fall.
Then, about a million gallons a day will be sent about 3,000 feet into the ground. That is safely below the aquifer, according to proponents. Environmentalists have said deep well injections are an inexact science that could one day impact our drinking water.
According to the DEP’s newly-approved conceptual closing plan, once the stacks are empty, grass will be grown on two feet of soil that will be packed over new liners. A drainage system featuring notches in the stack walls will allow for rainwater to drain out of the stacks once the project is complete.
Court-appointed receiver Herb Donica, who’s been involved with Piney Point bankruptcy matters since around 2000, said late last year he feared rain during the closure process could cause another breach.
“Yes,” Donica said when asked if the facility is less dangerous than it was in the fall. “We’re getting it under control.”
While releasing the plan, the DEP also emphasized again the state will hold Piney Point owner HRK accountable.
“DEP is seeking the maximum allowable penalties and recovery of costs and damages under existing law,” an agency news release said.
But as first reported by 8 On Your Side, the state was also blamed for missed or ignored warnings. A 2008 Army Corps of Engineers study warned against using the stacks for material from dredging Port Manatee. Within months of pumping dredge into the southern stack, there was a breach that sent HRK into bankruptcy.
Also, a letter sent by HRK a year before the breach told DEP there was “the potential high risk” of a breach due to the liner condition in the stack that failed last spring.
“I don’t know about that,” Donica said, when asked about HRK’s claim that the state delayed the cleanup process. “HRK was responsible for maintaining the stacks.”
Donica said the old southern stack is already dry and should be the first to be capped. The wildcard is the weather, specifically hurricanes, Donika said.
“The sudden influx of all that water and then the wave actions from the winds. It could cause a side-wall stack to deteriorate,” Donica said. “We’d probably have to petition the governor for an emergency order to dump some water.”
Donica said draining and various cleansing methods have left the remaining water much cleaner than it was during last year’s breach and release into the bay.
As far as the cost, DEP pegged the tab at about $71 million as of November. Donica said inflation has impacted the cost in recent months as did a liner leak that was discovered and plugged in January.