Piney Point deep well drilling could start next month as disaster tab passes $70 million

Manatee County

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — The state permitting process is not complete but across the street from Piney Point a rig is already poised to start drilling more than half a mile into the ground for an injection well, according to the receiver in charge of closing the long-troubled gypsum stack.

A breach in late March at the shuttered fertilizer plant and the fear of a wall of water rushing into the community prompted the decision by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to release about 215 million nitrogen-rich gallons of water into the Tampa estuary.

The release was blamed by critics for feeding the tourism sapping red tide bloom that plagued the Tampa Bay area during the summer.

Herb Donica, the court-appointed receiver hired to drain and rework the stacks to finally close Piney Point, said fear of another rupture remains constant.

“Every night and every day,” Donica said when asked how often he thinks about the possibility of another disaster. “It’s a constant threat.”

There’s also a constant drain of taxpayer dollars. A records request revealed the cost to manage the Piney Point problem through Nov. 2 is $71 million dollars. The total was $46 million by July 15.

One consistent focus has involved controlling the water levels in the southern stack that breached. Since August, just over $437,000 has been spent trucking millions of gallons to a water treatment facility.

According to the records provided by DEP, two water treatment companies submitted nearly $18 million in purchase orders through the end of August. The water treatment at the site has continued with a third vendor, a DEP spokesperson said.

Jacklyn Lopez, Florida Director of the Center for Biodiversity, said the $71 million tab is another indicator of the cost of 20 years of mismanagement by DEP.

“And that’s not even including closure,” Lopez said. “Like you said that’s just to make sure nothing worse happens.”

The Center for Biodiversity is now suing DEP, Piney Point’s owner HRK, LLC, and the Manatee County Port Authority over the alleged mismanagement of the site. Lopez said she expects the defendants to file a motion to dismiss a week from Friday.

The ongoing dewatering process has drained one of four Piney Pont stacks, according to Donica. But DEP said there are about 251 million gallons remaining in the southern stack.

“We want to bring the level down by two feet by June,” Donica said. “That would make us feel better. Every inch represents about four million gallons.”

Donica said the injection well drilling could start as early as next month and added that he used to be against the idea until he looked at the science and came to the conclusion it is the safest and the best way to drain the stacks.

“We’re going down probably a half a mile further than the drinking water aquifer,” Donica said. “Look at the science and the history. This is not a new process and it’s been done successfully. Nothing will be perfect, but this is our best option.”

The science and history are unproven at best according to Lopez who said there is already evidence of contamination in Piney Point monitoring wells.

“Best case scenario we’re putting untreated toxic waste underground. I mean that’s crazy,” Lopez said.

Lopez and other environmentalists prefer a reverse osmosis that uses pressure to force water through a filtration membrane.

But that failed at Piney Point in 2003, according to Donica who said one problem is 30 percent of the water is rejected and so toxic, regulations will not allow disposal.

“So, you’re stuck with it,” Donica said. “It doesn’t get you to the finish line.”

Lopez disagreed with Donica’s opinion that reverse osmosis failed in 2003.

“It worked back then, and the science is better. We need to at least have a transparent discussion,” Lopez said. “Let’s not put the toxic water down there and forget it when we know there are other options that don’t carry the same risks as deep well injection.”

Donica said if drilling starts next month, the well could be ready to take in more than 1 million gallons of stack water a day by June. But he acknowledged a final permit approval could prompt court action that would delay the process.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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