MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – As the drainage at Piney Point continues, with millions of gallons of water being pumped out of the reservoir and into Tampa Bay, one engineering solution is picking up more support in the Florida Legislature than others.
Some state lawmakers have proposed using $200 million of federal stimulus money to fund a permanent cleanup and closure of the Piney Point plant, and the solution they’re focused on is a deep injection well. Federal lawmakers from Florida have also expressed some support for the idea, such as U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan from Florida’s 13th Congressional District.
Manatee County officials have also shown support for the idea, but environmental advocates say a well could present several risks as well. County commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to authorize a deep injection well just south of the Piney Point site.
So what is a deep injection well?
A deep injection well is, essentially, a deep hole in the ground that is dug deep below where groundwater flows under the Earth’s surface.
Basically, it’s a man-made hole, “which extend[s] several thousand feet down from the surface level” that is used to funnel wastewater below underground sources of drinking water as a way to dispose of industrial contaminants, from oil to the radioactive leftovers of phosphate mining.
There are six types of injection wells, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and each one is used to dispose of different types of waste, based on class. The type of well that could be used at Piney Point hasn’t been decided yet and no proposals for a deep well injection site have been formally approved at this time.
What type of injection well could be installed at Piney Point?
Based on the classifications given for the different types of injection wells, the most likely type of injection well to be proposed to solve the issues at Piney Point is a Class I injection well. Let’s take a look at what that type of well is used for, and how that could make it a potential solution at the phosphogypsum stack currently affecting Tampa Bay:
“…used to ‘inject hazardous and non-hazardous waste into deep, confined rock formations below all underground sources of drinking water. The fluids may include municipal, industrial, or radioactive wastes.’EPA, Underground Injection Control Program (April 2020)
As previously reported, phosphogypsum stacks contain radioactive waste leftover from mining phosphate.
The EPA says phosphogypsum stacks emit radon gas, which can cause cancer, when the radium decays.
Officials, like Buchanan, who support the use of an injection well believe it is a solution to overflow caused by rainfall entering the stack’s ponds.
For Piney Point to get an injection well to handle the waste on-site, there are a few steps they’ll have to take, if the proposal passes in the legislature.
What are the environmental concerns from digging deep?
SCS Engineers, an environmental engineering consultants group, cites a 2001 study which found that injection wells had a smaller impact on human health compared to other waste disposal methods.
“In 2000 and 2001, other studies by the University of Miami and USEPA, respectively, suggested that injection wells had the least potential for impact on human health when compared to ocean outfalls and surface discharges,” said SCS Engineers in a technical memo on deep injection wells published in 2019.
Monte Markley, the national expert for deep well and underground injection control at SCS Engineers based in Wichita, Kansas, says Class I wells, the type used for non-hazardous waste like what’s at Piney Point, are highly regulated.
“Non-hazardous wells still have very stringent permitting and citing criteria, but hazardous waste wells have much more stringent criteria for the duration of the life of those wastes, so this would be a non-hazardous waste well, most likely for the Piney Point application,” said Markley.
The SCS Engineers memo touches on the projected capital costs of wells in different locations, including South Florida. The cost listed in their memo estimates it would cost $6.3 million, with an annual cost of $225,000 after. Markley says a lifetime use for a Class I well is about 40 years.
In terms of capital, state lawmakers have earmarked $6 million from the state general fund in a proposed emergency treatment program for Manatee County.
Support from state lawmakers and officials isn’t unanimous. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried previously told 8 On Your Side that she wasn’t comfortable with deep well injection as a solution.
“…I have huge concerns with deep well injections, especially with doing it so close to the Everglades. And this is something that I continue to be concerned about,” said Fried.
Markley addressed the potential impact of deep injection wells and their potential impact on drinking water and the surrounding community.
“…There has been an increased movement towards putting this water underground where the water – 2,500 to 3,000 feet’s not drinkable – it’s very saline, it’s very salty, you can’t do anything with it, so when you mix in water that’s got phosphate, you know things like that, that water’s never going to be reused again, so you are putting it somewhere, it is going deep in the Earth but we will never encounter it or be exposed to it as humans,” said Markley.
If approved, what are next steps for a deep injection well?
At Piney Point, the unanimous vote by the Manatee Board of County Commissioners means that the deep injection well site would be under county control. As the operators of the well, if the project proposal moves forward, they’ll need to receive approval to begin from the EPA’s Underground Injection Control Program.
To move forward, the county will have to apply for permits. Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, has previously said the permitting process could take two years or more.
After being approved and receiving the permits, construction takes less time, according to Markley.
“Once the permitting is approved and it goes out for bid and you go to construction and start drilling, that can take anywhere from four and a half months to nine or 10 months,” said Markley.
For now, the community around Piney Point has to be patient as the cleanup for the current crisis continues and officials work on plans for a more permanent solution. Whether or not Manatee County will move forward with a deep injection well is yet to be determined.