MAC: Mines and Communities

USA: Florida to cleanup and close phosphate mining wastewater reservoir after alarming leaks

Published by MAC on 2021-04-22
Source: The Counter,, NYT,

More than 300 households were evacuated.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Saturday April 3 after a significant leak at Piney Point, a large pond of phosphate mining wastewater, threatened to flood roads and homes. Officials ordered more than 300 households to be evacuated and closed off a highway near the reservoir in the Tampa Bay area north of Bradenton.

Florida supplies a quarter of the world’s phosphate and 80 percent of all the phosphate used in the US. Piney Point is a phosphate mine and fertilizer plant that’s been defunct since 2001. Once phosphate ore is dug up, sulfuric acid dissolves it into a slurry from which the stuff used in fertilizer is obtained, leaving behind phosphogypsum as a byproduct. For every ton of phosphoric acid produced for fertilizer, more than five tons of phosphogypsum waste remains.

Florida lawmakers have now proposed spending $200 million on “the complete cleanup and closure” of the Piney Point site.
See also:
2016-09-19 USA: Massive sinkhole at Mosaic waste pile leaks radioactive water into Floridan aquifer

The Florida wastewater disaster was totally foreseeable

The precarious situation at Piney Point is not an anomaly. Experts have been warning about the site—and others like it throughout the country—for years.

Lela Nargi

April 4, 2021
Around 11 a.m. on April 3, an emergency alert flashed on residents’ cells phones in Manatee County, Florida. “Evacuate area NOW,” it read, according to a screenshot later published by the Tampa Bay Times. “Collapse of Piney Point Stack imminent!”

Three weeks later, the details of that emergency have become clear. On March 26, a leak sprung at Piney Point, a phosphate mine and fertilizer plant that’s been defunct since 2001. The facility—one of more than two dozen in the state, nine of which are still active—houses stacks of phosphogypsum, a toxic, radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer production process. These flat, white, mesa-like “gypstacks” of accumulated solid waste, which can stretch up to five stories tall, then become crudely efficient containment ponds for liquid waste. 

For safety reasons, managing these open-air ponds is a round-the-clock responsibility. Water is continually pumped to treatment plants in order to be processed, or diverted into a network of plastic-lined reservoirs. Since the ponds can grow in volume by millions of gallons with every rainfall, this combination of treatment and diversion, as well as evaporation, are needed to remove wastewater more quickly than rain can fall or new liquid waste is generated.

It’s a precarious system in which small problems can quickly become emergencies. And that’s the story at Piney Point, where a potentially manageable leak got suddenly serious. According to the Tampa Bay Times, one wastewater pond’s inch-thick plastic liner tore, releasing thousands of gallons a day into the sediment beneath. On April 2, the escaping deluge caused a containment wall to shift, rendering a hole at the bottom of the berm. Crews worked through the night to plug it but the situation worsened; wastewater by the hundreds of millions of gallons was unleashed and threatened the entire structure with collapse.

On the morning of April 3, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Manatee and two neighboring counties and more than 300 homes were evacuated. Ultimately, authorities pumped more than 200 million gallons of polluted wastewater into the Tampa Bay to lessen pressure on the containment structure. This helped avoid human catastrophe, but it sparked an ecological tragedy whose true impact on water quality and marine species has yet to be determined. Governor DeSantis has vowed the incident will be the “last chapter” in the story of Piney Point, and an anticipated $200 million cleanup project will now commence.

Any yet, the calamity at Piney Point was foreseeable—and foreseen.

In a feature published almost exactly a year ago, The Counter contributing writer Boyce Upholt chronicled the ravages and potential peril of the phosphate mining industry. His piece, “Eaters of the earth: How the fertilizer industry leaves a trail of destruction across the American South,” began in Florida and made its way to the bayous of Louisiana, revealing how the region’s aging phosphate fertilizer facilities comprise a network of ticking time bombs.

In St. James Parish, Louisiana, Upholt spoke to local residents living in the shadow of a gypstack owned by the Mosaic Company, the world’s largest producer of concentrated phosphates. Many community members worry one of the gypstacks will overflow or burst, with good reason: In 2018, a containment wall at Mosaic’s facility started to budge under the weight of its wastewater pond, shifting 13 feet before detection. If breached, the broken wall could have released its 700 million gallons of sludge—a worst-case scenario narrowly avoided, and one very similar to the near disaster at Piney Point.

A new investigation by the Tampa Bay Times shows how a well-documented combination of ineptitude, short-sightedness, and greed led to the current debacle at Piney Point. When the site’s current owner, private investment company HRK Holdings, expressed (financial) interest in adding waste from a Port Manatee dredging project to Piney Point’s gypstacks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned that the project might come with unacceptable risk. This advice was dismissed—leading to an almost immediate failure of the plastic lining of Piney Point’s reservoir. A sequence of fixes never resolved the problem, according to the Times. As recently as March 2020, an independent engineering firm hired to evaluate the site found an imminent danger of “catastrophic damage to the public and the environment” due to the “unknown and likely compromised condition” of the liner.

With the dangers of phosphate mining now made abundantly, dramatically clear, what should happen next? Discussion about that began even before the latest incident at Piney Point. Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the use of phosphogypsum in government road construction projects, ostensibly to mitigate the costly and hazardous burden of storing the stuff; one billion tons’ worth of it is piled all around Florida, which produces 80 percent of U.S. phosphorous. David Kanter, assistant professor of environmental studies at NYU, said that while the Trump EPA approval “did not include enough quality controls to be environmentally safe,” he believes that researching ways to properly treat phosphogypsum and similar industrial byproducts so they can be used in road repair or as soil amendments is valuable. This would create a circular economy in which “waste that is a real risk to society” is repurposed, keeping it out of our air and waterways, he said.

David Cwiertny, a University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering, is dubious that phosphogypsum can ever be made truly “safe” for the environment—or that there’s a research mechanism in place to understand whether treating it to “improve” it wouldn’t generate another deleterious product to then contend with. According to Scientific American, similar enthusiasm once abounded for this sort of “end of pipe” solution around using a toxic industrial byproduct that comes from burning coal, called fly ash, to amend soil—now shown to cause crops to absorb hazardous amounts of arsenic. The precarious open pits used to store it, like those used for  phosphogypsum, are also prone to disastrous spills—a 2008 breach in Tennessee, and another in 2014 in North Carolina, poured ash, arsenic, and selenium into local rivers.

The inefficiencies and pitfalls of “solutions” aside, the Piney Point disaster highlights a larger issue: Certain regions of the U.S. are overwhelmed with waste products that either support or result from industrial agriculture, and “we’re running out of room to store them,” Cwiertny said. Piney Point is just a microcosm of industrial agriculture’s much vaster pollution problem.

“These are things we don’t want in the environment,” Cwiertny said. “And yet, we keep finding ways to reuse them to keep disposal costs down, rather than regulating them as [materials] that can devastate ecosystems and public health.”

In the same vein, he said the livestock sector has been bullish on anaerobic digesters that can transform the 1.4 billion tons of manure that CAFOs generate each year into biogas. But this ostensibly earth-friendly method of disposal is problematic; it produces carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide and, said Cwiertny, “might just be an excuse to allow big producers in Iowa to raise more pigs” whose manure—just like coal ash, just like phosphogyspum—will lead to an uptick in hazards for nearby communities.

Silvia Secchi, a natural resource economist in UI’s department of geographical and sustainability sciences points out that another “fix” common to CAFOs is to empty manure lagoons, which have been shown to contain antibiotics, E. coli, MRSA-resistant bacteria, and pesticides, onto crop fields—which then contaminate soil and leak into waterways. “We’re trained to think we can keep [creating waste] and technology will save us,” she said. 

The solution, then, may be less about finding high-tech re-use mechanisms, and more about confronting what some in ag are loath admit: Cutting consumption is far more efficient than contending with massive volumes of waste. Practically speaking, this would require more regulation and oversight.

Kanter advocates for a kind of management that would “work around the edges to make the system that created the problem more efficient.” Instead of regulating a farmer’s fertilizer usage, for example, he believes government should mandate that fertilizer companies sell only their nicheenhanced efficiency fertilizers. That way you regulate a smaller number of actors but are still influencing what happens on a farm,” he said.

Secchi would like to see more direct regulation of the waste products that are allowed to proliferate around industrial ag, as well as better enforcement. She believes current lack of oversight is purposeful, to “hide the extent of the problem,” which would be both expensive and complicated to mitigate. Further, she said states have a conflict of interest in regulating an industry that causes 10 percent of U.S. emissions for its 1 percent contribution to GDP—but that creates lots of jobs.

“Piney Point is a pretty good example of all the problems that are coming after years of inaction and incompetence,” said Cwiertny. There’s now a petition up before the EPA to reverse a 1991 ruling that allowed phosphogypsum to be excluded from regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which Cwiertny said was meant to mandate “best practices for the worst of the worst waste,” but at times is “far too deferential to industry.” He’d also like to see more, and more stringent, regulation and monitoring—that would lead to, in the case of phosphogypsum, “everything from better structures in place to hold it, to better expectations for the liners that can protect aquifers from discharges, to regulating that [waste] water to treat it to where it’s safe to discharge,” he said.

Nevertheless, the experts agree that even if regulation of byproducts like phosphogypsum, CAFO manure, and fly ash were to happen quickly—and Secchi expresses doubt that Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, a former Iowa governor whom critics  consider to be pro-CAFO, will push for meaningful change—there’s still a long road to travel before ecosystems can begin to recover.

Three weeks after Piney Point’s leak began, Secchi took to Twitter to decry the latest environmental crisis, 1,400 miles away from that spot of Gulf Coast, triggered by her home state’s CAFOs: a several-hundred-thousand-gallon spill of manure into an environmentally sensitive creek that triggered a massive fish die-off. “The whole state is a toxic ag dumping ground and no one cares,” Secchi tweeted.   

That same day, the Los Angeles Times dropped a story about the negative intergenerational health effects of long-banned pesticide DDT, also once used in agriculture, and the interconnectedness of these recurring and lingering catastrophes were very much on Secchi’s mind. Just as the consequences of DDT use persist, the fallout from the Piney Point disaster will likely reverberate in the Tampa Bay for years to come. For Secchi, the irreversibility of that harm underscores the imperative to address mounting environmental crises before they become even more acute.

 “I don’t know how much of that you can ‘fix,’ and we’re not going back to before-the-fact,” Secchi said. “It’s the same as DDT. Some of that damage you can’t eliminate.”

Failure at Piney Point: Florida let environmental risk fester despite warnings

How Florida blew a chance to close Piney Point for good in favor of a risky plan to turn a profit at the abandoned phosphate plant.

Bethany Barnes, Christopher O'Donnell and Zachary T. Sampson

Apr. 17 2021

PALMETTO — As early as 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was predicting possible disaster at the old Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County if a plan to use the site for dredging went forward.

The “worst case scenario,” the Army Corps cautioned, would be a tear in the plastic liner that engineers were counting on to hold back water perched atop dangerous waste material. Another worry the Army Corps raised: What if the private company in charge went bankrupt?

Army Corps officials warned the Manatee County Port Authority, which was counting on the increase in business. They warned the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which stood to show it could transform a costly mess into an asset. And those warnings reached HRK Holdings, the private company that bought the site and planned to make millions from storing dredge material.

All of them pushed back. And then the worst happened. The liner failed almost immediately after dredging began. Now, 10 years later, it has happened again.

This month, a leak at Piney Point drove Manatee County to the nervous edge of catastrophe. Fearing a flood would rip through the surrounding community, authorities ordered the evacuation of more than 300 homes. More than 200 million gallons of wastewater have been pumped into Tampa Bay, the environmental impact of which is still unknown.

Under a spotlight in the aftermath, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is pledging to hold HRK accountable. But the agency isn’t a minor actor in the story of what went wrong at Piney Point. Florida’s environmental regulator agreed to a plan that put a group of New York financiers in charge of what was arguably the state’s biggest ecological risk. The agency questioned warnings from engineers who sounded the alarm that a major leak could happen. And the state knew HRK was behind on its goal to get rid of the polluted water.

Even the agency’s top official is bewildered by how Piney Point was ever allowed to become a dump site run by an inexperienced private company.

“The more I learn, the less I understand,” said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein during a news conference with the governor this week.

The state had money to close Piney Point for good before but chose to leave the site open for future business interests, the secretary told lawmakers April 7. That has left “the property still there as a risk,” Valenstein said.

Since the latest leak was first noticed, a familiar pattern has emerged. Everyone involved is pointing fingers elsewhere. But records show officials at all levels — the state, the company, the county — had a hand in what Piney Point became. The county backed an idea to put more waste at Piney Point, the company looked at an environmental risk and saw a chance to profit, and the state stood by as a looming environmental danger festered on its watch.

Dredging Port Manatee

Port Manatee was looking to dredge a new berth, becoming an attractive destination for huge freighter ships sailing through the Panama Canal. It needed a place to put all the muck.

In Piney Point, port officials saw opportunity.

The Port Authority, made up of Manatee County commissioners, approached the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about the idea, the Bradenton Herald reported in 2005.

The state was on board, seeing a chance to make something useful out of an industrial site with a troubled history. It had spent years trying to drain acidic wastewater from Piney Point’s radioactive phosphogypsum stacks, replacing the ponds with plastic-lined reservoirs.

Port records show that department officials and a consultant engineer, Ardaman & Associates, met with the Port Authority’s governing board in October 2005. They touted the strength and longevity of the liner, saying it was a material that would “survive the elements well past our lifetimes.”

Former commissioner and Port Authority board member Joe McClash said board members were given samples to touch.

“There was a high degree of confidence because it was the same material used for landfills,” said McClash.

A private company saw opportunity, too. Despite the contamination, industrial land close to a seaport made Piney Point an enticing real estate investment for HRK, which purchased the roughly 700-acre site in 2006. In a dredging agreement with the port, HRK could quickly make millions of dollars and fill in some of the old gypsum stacks.

But in 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers released a 72-page study calling the idea a risk.

“I got through 5 pages of this utter nonsense from the (Army Corps of Engineers) before my blood pressure hit the red zone,” HRK representative Art Roth wrote after reading the report, according to an email filed in court records. “Obviously, facts, experience and expert opinion don’t matter.”

HRK executives didn’t have first-hand experience in dealing with the complex geology of a gypsum stack, but they did have something else working in their favor: the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and its engineering consultants at Ardaman.

HRK, with the agency’s approval, tapped Ardaman to rebut the Army Corps. The engineer had a long history with Piney Point, having worked with the state on closure efforts for years.

Ardaman tamped down fears in a report, professing confidence and repeatedly calling a leak “unlikely.”

The Army Corps continued to oppose the project.

An Army Corps official wrote to the executive director of the port in 2009 saying that even if the risk of failure was low, “the consequences could be great.” He noted HRK could go bankrupt, like prior owners who operated the phosphate plant on the site. That would put the state in a jam. More to the point, the risks were unnecessary because a cheaper, safer option existed to dump the dredge material miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection threw its weight behind Piney Point, too. Then-Secretary Michael Sole wrote to an Army Corps leader that the state had “previously identified several benefits to the local environment and community” from disposing of dredge spoils there.

An official under him at the agency noted the department had spent more than $100 million cleaning Piney Point and continued to hope the new reservoirs would be useful for a project such as dredging. The agency gave assurances that the Army Corps would be shielded from litigation if something went wrong.

The Army Corps was still worried, records show, almost right up until the 2011 dredge operation began. A high-ranking Army Corps official in Washington, D.C., wrote the port saying the plan was needlessly risky.

The Army Corps would not agree to an interview for this story. Ultimately, it let the dredging go forward.

Disposal began that April. In May, there were signs of a leak, which an expert eventually traced to a tear in the liner. The Department of Environmental Protection, fearing the leak would disrupt the gypsum stacks, issued an emergency order letting crews send about 170 million gallons of potentially contaminated water toward Tampa Bay.

HRK has since sued Ardaman saying the company relied on the engineering firm’s assurances and expertise that the plastic liner system would hold. That litigation has been tied up in court for eight years. Ardaman’s attorney did not answer emails for comment. The company did not reply to a request for comment submitted through a contact form.

Now, with another breach to answer for, HRK is again arguing it was misled by Ardaman.
A recent warning

The liner that kept water in the large reservoir at Piney Point, stopping it from leaking, is about 0.08 inches thick. That’s equal to 76 Hefty strong trash bags.

After the 2011 leak, and subsequent fixes, officials continued to trust the plastic liner. But fears did not subside, and the state required HRK to make routine inspections.

As recently as March 2020, an independent engineer brought on to evaluate Piney Point warned of a looming disaster.

The potential for “catastrophic damage to the public and the environment is considered unacceptable,” two engineers for the firm, Wood, declared in a letter to HRK and the Department of Environmental Protection.

The engineers described liner tears above the water level, the “unknown and likely compromised condition” below the surface and possible lingering trouble from the 2011 incident. They suggested the reservoir “should immediately be drained” and kept stable until the gypsum stack system could be closed.

State regulators were taken aback. The letter contained “several factually incorrect statements,” according to the state.

In response, John Coates, the manager for the Department of Environmental Protection’s mining and mitigation program, questioned what proof Wood could have for some of the letter’s assertions. The engineers had only looked at part of the liner that was above water, which would be more worn from the sun, he wrote. Coates had been involved with oversight at Piney Point for years.

If the Wood engineers had qualms about lingering issues from the 2011 leak, Coates wrote, they could have spoken up earlier, in previous years working at the site. The agency did not make Coates available for an interview.

Dee Ann Miller, a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the state did not receive a reply to Coates’ letter. But it did receive an annual inspection report dated June 2020 in which the same engineering firm described the phosphogypsum stack system as “generally in good condition based on Wood’s visual inspection.”

A Wood representative declined to comment.

Throughout the rest of 2020, records show, HRK staffers continued to document small cracks or potential flaws above the water line.

“HRK routinely inspects, notifies FDEP, and corrects synthetic liner flaws identified above the water line of the water storage compartments,” the company said in a statement this week. Valenstein, the department secretary, has said “that’s the ongoing process with a liner system.”

About a year after Wood’s warning, residents around the old plant property would flee their homes on the recent Easter weekend, as authorities warned that a leak from a liner tear could cause the collapse of Piney Point.

Then, the blame began.

Signs of trouble

HRK Holdings has two main responsibilities at Piney Point, according to a presentation Coates, of the Department of Environmental Protection, gave to Manatee commissioners in January 2019.

• Clean up and manage the site.

• Provide financial assurance that the property will be cared for decades into the future.

It was the department’s job to make sure they did that, Coates said. “They have to be held accountable, and they are being accountable.”

But HRK has struggled to meet its obligations, records show.

Engineers working at the site repeatedly documented how the company was not disposing of polluted water fast enough to meet a Feb. 15, 2019, deadline in an agreement with the state. HRK did not have the technology or equipment needed to finish the job on time, the independent engineers said.

The company said this week it “has continuously and diligently relayed concern to all who would listen of the impending problems and risks” at Piney Point and “has proposed numerous solutions to” state and local government without getting approval or funding. HRK pushed for a deep well to inject wastewater underground, among other solutions.

Rain has continued to fill the site. Jeff Barath, HRK’s manager at Piney Point, recently told elected officials in Manatee that without help, wastewater could soon overwhelm the ponds.

To assure the state that Piney Point will be managed into the future, the company has had to keep money in a trust. HRK says it has to get state approval to pay for at least some repairs on the property.

The fund gives the Department of Environmental Protection money in case HRK goes out of business and the state has to step in to manage Piney Point again. That’s what happened when the plant’s last private owner, Mulberry Corp., failed two decades ago. Coates said the acidic wastewater ponds would have overflowed without state intervention.

But, Coates told commissioners in early 2019, the money HRK held with the state was not enough to take care of all the waste at Piney Point in the event the company went out of business.

As of March 31, about the time this leak was reported, a financial report provided by the Department of Environmental Protection showed that HRK had less than $2.5 million in a fund overseen by the Florida Department of Financial Services.

Lawmakers are now talking about spending as much as $200 million to close the place for good.

The money men

HRK Holdings was an unusual choice to take over an abandoned phosphate plant.

Valenstein, the state’s top environmental official, has said other sites like Piney Point are run by active mining companies.

HRK was created by a group of three Wall Street financiers: William “Mickey” F. Harley III, Scott Rosenzweig and Gary Kania. The firm, set up as a limited liability corporation, took its name from their initials with Harley and Rosenzweig each owning 40 percent and Kania 20.

Kania later left HRK and Rosenzweig died in 2012.

Harley had a reputation for buying companies in financial trouble. A 2004 profile in Forbes described him as a “vulture” who learned about distressed firms while working at investment bank Allen & Co., before he moved on to manage Mellon HBV’s $1.2 billion hedge fund. It catered to affluent investors who could afford the $1 million minimum investment.

Harley declined to comment for this story.

A graduate of the Yale School of Management, Harley at one time owned a handful of Hooters franchises and held $6 million in stock in Frederick’s of Hollywood, the lingerie retailer, where he also served on the board of directors. He sat on the board of a Canadian-based energy firm that mined for uranium in Namibia. Later, he invested in a pecan farm.

The Bradenton Herald reported that the investors learned of Piney Point from Roth, a fertilizer consultant, who was then hired by HRK.

But records show that in 2001 Kania was following the bankruptcy of Mulberry Corp. closely. He was a vice president at a New York-based bank and was listed as its contact in a claim made in bankruptcy filings that Mulberry owed the bank $36.6 million.

Tampa attorney Herb Donica was hired by Mulberry Corp bankruptcy trustee John Brook after Piney Point closed. He visited the site off U.S. Hwy. 41 so often, paint began to peel from his silver Mercedes, the result of acid from an abandoned pond on the site drifting through the air, he said.

The job of the trustee was to get the best deal for Mulberry’s many creditors, but it wasn’t like a normal bankruptcy since the site was under the control of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Donica told the Tampa Bay Times.

Manatee commissioners declined the chance to buy the site for $4 million, saying it was too polluted even for that bargain price.

Other companies were interested in acquiring Piney Point, but Kania’s familiarity with the site gave HRK an advantage, Donica said this week.

Around the time of the sale, he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: “They satisfied us that they knew what they were getting into. We were never going to turn it loose to someone who wasn’t aware of the managing and monitoring that is required.”

Brook, the trustee, said last week that the Department of Environmental Protection vetted HRK and approved the sale.

HRK financed the $4.3 million purchase through a $10 million loan secured by a mortgage on Piney Point from AmSouth Bank, which later merged with Regions Bank. It was also required to pay $3.8 million to the department toward the ongoing cleanup of the site.

Court records show that the company struggled even as it borrowed more money from Regions. By 2008, liens were being filed against the Piney Point property, and HRK was sued for $1.7 million because it failed to pay a construction company to demolish old phosphate factory equipment.

By 2010, Regions agreed to consolidate the firm’s debt into a single promissory note of $17.5 million.

There was some money coming in. The firm leased land to a salt company that wanted storage. A warehouse for keeping fertilizer was built and the start of the pumping of dredging material from Port Manatee’s Berth 12 project promised more revenue. Port records show HRK was paid $3 million through 2011.

The company’s finances nosedived after the first leak.

Barely more than a year later, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Tampa federal court. Claims from creditors reached $33 million. That included a $12 million lien from Port Manatee, which had been sued by the dredging company claiming that the delay caused by the leak had cost it $4.7 million.

Harley, HRK’s principal owner, was also hit with a lawsuit filed a few months later by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. The wealthy Pittsburgh nonprofit accused Harley of misusing its $2 million investment to make payments to companies he owned, including HRK, through his hedge fund.

Soon after, regular reports showed the value of the nonprofit’s investment was plummeting. By April 2008, its $2 million investment had dwindled to $306,000, the lawsuit claims.

Around June 2009, Harley closed the hedge fund’s offices, the lawsuit states, and started operating the fund out of a Hooters basement.

The lawsuit alleged that he transferred the remaining investment funds into a company he owned called the Arsenal Group. Arsenal sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to HRK during its bankruptcy, court records show. The lawsuit was closed after the two sides agreed to a settlement. The terms were not disclosed.

HRK emerged from bankruptcy in 2017, although it remained millions of dollars in debt to Regions Bank.

What now?

The state is vowing this will be Piney Point’s “last chapter.”

How that will happen is unclear. Gov. Ron DeSantis has directed the Department of Environmental Protection’s scientists and engineers to draw up a plan. Valenstein, the department’s secretary, said closure will mean draining and filling the ponds to make sure water can no longer be stored at Piney Point.

The governor has redirected about $15 million toward treating water at the site. State lawmakers say they could greenlight up to $200 million for closure.

The leaking reservoir today, according to state regulators, contains a mix of old seawater from the dredging, rainwater and polluted water related to the fertilizer industry.

Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes says what happened isn’t the county’s fault and points out that Piney Point was the responsibility of a private landowner that was overseen by the state.

“Certainly, the county did not have the resources to do what’s being done right now,” he said.

Valenstein told lawmakers this month that he is interested in ordering a report detailing his agency’s actions at Piney Point.

Already, another business is circling the property.

In September, Regions Bank assigned HRK’s outstanding debt to Fortress 2020 Landco. Soon after, Fortress sued HRK seeking to foreclose on several debts and lines of credit that HRK has failed to repay. The loans total $25 million, according to the lawsuit.

It’s unclear what investor or company is behind Fortress. The company was registered in August in Delaware, a state that draws hundreds of thousands of business registrations because of laws that keep executives’ names confidential.

Records filed with Florida’s Division of Corporations, also in August, list a business address in Fort Worth, Texas. Orla Drilling, which works with oil and mining companies, is listed as operating from that site. HRK has filed motions seeking to have the Fortress lawsuit dismissed.

This new legal battle could complicate the governor’s plan for the state to clean up the site permanently and hold HRK accountable.

Glenn Compton, who is chairperson of the local environmental group ManaSota-88, doubts the state will be able to get much money from HRK. He has long criticized what he sees as mismanagement and poor regulation of Piney Point. He considers it a “historic mistake” that will be difficult to bring to a close, the culmination of decades of poor choices and the lasting fallout of Florida’s fertilizer industry.

“What we’ve learned is there’s no such thing as a future beneficial use of a phosphogypsum stack. These are wastelands, and they’ll be wastelands for generations to come,” Compton said. “The price is being paid by the taxpayers and the environment.”

Florida Plans to Close Wastewater Reservoir Where Leak Forced Evacuations

A potential deluge of millions of gallons of water from a former phosphate mine had threatened homes south of Tampa.

Azi Paybarah

April 13, 2021

Florida officials on Tuesday announced their intention to permanently shut down a leaking wastewater reservoir south of Tampa that had forced hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes under the threat of a catastrophic collapse.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said on Tuesday that he was allocating more than $15 million to start the process of closing the 79-acre reservoir, which is part of a system of ponds connected to a former phosphate mine in Piney Point, Fla. He said he was directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop a plan to permanently close the site.

“We want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story,” Mr. DeSantis said at a news conference at the reservoir.

A leak was detected at the site on March 26, and officials said water was leaking at a rate of two million to three million gallons a day. The reservoir held 480 million gallons of water, and local officials said they feared that if it gave way, a collapse could unleash a 20-foot wall of water. A week later, there were 390 million gallons remaining, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said.

Mr. DeSantis declared a state of emergency for three counties near the reservoir. He also issued an evacuation order affecting more than 300 homes near the site in Manatee County.

Officials raced to drain the reservoir, pumping 75 million to 100 million gallons a day, up from 35 million gallons earlier. The water being discharged was primarily seawater from a dredging project, “mixed with legacy process water and storm water runoff/rainfall,” according to a state website tracking developments with the reservoir.

Officials said the primary concern about the discharged water was the concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus but emphasized that the water was not radioactive. A sudden, uncontrolled breach could have upended stacks of phosphogypsum, a waste product of phosphate mining, that hold the ponds.

The ultimate cost and timeline for the closing are unclear. Mr. DeSantis said $15.4 million would be redirected for “innovative technologies to pretreat water at the site,” which can mitigate the effects of further discharges. He also said he expected the state Legislature to allocate additional funding.

Wilton Simpson, the Senate president, who joined Mr. DeSantis on Tuesday, said he expected the Legislature to allocate $100 million “for the initial funding. And by the end of the year we hope to get a full closure plan with a fully funded amount that may be required.”

The crisis at the Piney Point reservoir underscores the risks posed by giant pools of wastewater, which are a common feature at thousands of industrial and agricultural sites across the country. They are vital to major industries like livestock and power generation. But environmental groups say they pose major environmental, health and safety risks, whether from mismanagement or, increasingly, from the effects of climate change.

The wastewater disaster in Florida is a symptom of how we grow our food

Fertilizer’s messy legacy spreads far beyond the disaster at Piney Point.

Justine Calma

Apr 7, 2021

Fearing a 20-foot “tidal wave” of contaminated wastewater breaking free from a giant industrial waste pile, Florida officials told hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes in Manatee County over Easter weekend.

Since then, authorities have furiously drained more than a 170 million gallons of wastewater to alleviate the pressure that might have otherwise overwhelmed containment walls. The most dangerous water (which picked up contaminants as it leaked through the breach) was trucked away to be processed — but the rest has been intentionally drained into Tampa Bay, where it could cause more problems.

It’s a string of potential disasters that can be traced back to the area’s legacy of mining phosphate rock, which the agricultural industry relies on for fertilizer. The crisis is unfolding at the former Piney Point phosphate plant, where phosphate was mined and then turned into fertilizer for decades until the site was abandoned in 2001. What’s left in its wake are three towering phosphogypsum “stacks” — flat-topped hills of radioactive industrial waste with wastewater ponds at the center.

This isn’t the first time phosphogypsum stacks have suddenly released slurries of water and waste — and it probably won’t be the last. Another crisis like the one at Piney Point could easily happen again unless we rethink the way we grow our food, some environmental advocates say.

“The damage that occurs from just producing fertilizer — not even using it, but just producing fertilizer — is profound,” says Rachael Curran, an environmental attorney in Florida.

A big mess

Florida supplies a quarter of the world’s phosphate and 80 percent of all the phosphate used in the US. Most of it goes into fertilizer.

But before it can be used to help crops grow, the phosphate goes through a chemical process that leaves behind a big mess. Once phosphate ore is dug up, sulfuric acid dissolves it into a “slurry.” The stuff used in fertilizer is separated out from the slurry, leaving behind phosphogypsum as a byproduct. For every ton of desirable phosphoric acid produced for fertilizer, more than five tons of phosphogypsum waste remains.

Phosphogypsum has been used as a construction material in other countries, like China, which produces the most phosphate in the world (the US ranks third). But in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency banned using the material in construction in 1989 because of its radioactivity, albeit at relatively low levels. (Phosphate ore contains some uranium, thorium, and radium.)

Last year, the EPA gave the greenlight to use phosphogypsum with low levels of radioactivity to build roads (it followed a landslide of environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration). But Curran still worries about that — instead of piling the risk all in one place, she worries, that’s just spreading it around.

Since it isn’t typically used for anything, the phosphate industry pumps its leftover “slurry” into phosphogypsum stacks. Water pools on the top while solids settle and are used to form the containment walls. These “stacks” grow into mountains over time — with some reaching nearly as tall as a 20-story building and as wide as 600 football fields. There are more than two dozen phosphogypsum stacks strewn across Florida.

These giants are vulnerable. Much of Florida is built on porous rock, which makes it susceptible to sinkholes. In 2016, one opened up underneath a 120-foot tall phosphogypsum stack, sending contaminated water and waste into a major drinking water aquifer. Another sinkhole did something similar to another stack in 1994. And in 1997, the wall of another stack collapsed and sent more than 50 million gallons of contaminated water into the Alafia River. Piney Point itself spilled 170 million gallons of wastewater when the lining of its stacks ripped in 2011.

Luckily, there’s little risk that the waste from Piney Point will reach the aquifer and affect drinking water this time, officials say — although they’ve provided bottled water to affected residents.

The slight radioactivity of wastewater in phosphogypsum stacks isn’t likely to cause major problems for wildlife or people, according to Matt Pasek, a geoscience professor at the University of South Florida. “It won’t kill you to get splashed with it,” Pasek says. “But it’s not something you would want to swim in or drink.”

Still, there are other problems at Piney Point. The stacks are the highest point in the area, which is one reason why a cascade of wastewater from the site threatened to wipe out homes this week. Officials decided that the potential “tidal wave” posed a greater threat than letting water drain into Tampa Bay. But environmentalists and people in the fishing industry are worried that the wastewater, laced with nitrogen and phosphorous, could trigger harmful algae blooms that use up much of the oxygen in the water, choking local marine life.

Florida lawmakers have proposed spending $200 million on “the complete cleanup and closure” of Piney Point. The state senate will consider the budget amendment today. “When it’s all said and done, those stacks will be emptied and sealed. So I’m thrilled about that,” Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh said during a briefing on Piney Point yesterday. The county board of commissioners authorized the use of a deep injection well to store the remaining wastewater from Piney Point once it’s been treated.

Curran still worries that those actions won’t prevent another phosphogypsum stack collapse or leak in the state. Heavier rainfall and more intense storms as a result of climate change are putting already vulnerable stacks in an even more precarious situation, she adds. A 2004 hurricane caused another breach at another stack that spilled 65 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

“There is no safe way to manage these stacks, that’s been made clear so the solution is really to stop generating the waste in the first place,” says Curran. “That ultimately means we need to change the way we grow food.”

A new landscape?
Changing our agricultural system is a tall order. Phosphate is, after all, a building block for life. It forms the “backbone” of DNA strands. Phosphorous is one of the three primary nutrients plants need to grow, along with potassium and nitrogen.

After World War II devastated agriculture and industry across much of Europe and Asia, demand for these nutrients in fertilizer grew (there were also nitrate factories readily available that had previously been used to make munitions). Fertilizers increased crop yields as the population of Earth grew, and they became an integral part of industrialized agriculture.

“Phosphate is not a sort of vanity mining industry, something that you want for jewelry or things like that,” says Pasek. Because of its important role in agriculture, Pasek says an end to phosphate mining “is not feasible, let’s put it that way.”

Some farmers, however, are putting that to the test. They’re doing things differently by returning to some of the ways farming was done before there were industrial fertilizers. There’s a growing movement toward so-called “regenerative” farming. Instead of applying fertilizer and tilling soil — breaking it up — between cash crops, they’re planting other crops that replenish nutrients in the soil. Radishes, for example, have been shown to increase phosphorus in soil.

“There are a lot of farmers out there that have completely done away with synthetic fertilizer, and are doing fine,” says Rick Haney, a soil scientist with the USDA.

Even if it’s too soon to throw out synthetic fertilizers altogether, there are opportunities to use a lot less of it. Some researchers are trying to tap into the legacy of phosphate fertilizers that’s already trapped in soil. Sometimes phosphorus reacts with other minerals in soil to form compounds that modern crops have a harder time soaking up. Farmers traditionally solved this dilemma by turning to more phosphate fertilizer. As an alternative, crops can be bred to become better at making use of those trapped nutrients.

And while phosphorus might be a building block for life, phosphate rock used to make synthetic fertilizer is a finite resource that could one day be depleted. That’s adding to the growing momentum for regenerative farming.

“In 20 years it’s going to be a very different farming system. I think that we’re going to have to move in that direction because it just makes more sense,” says Haney. “Why would you work against nature when you can work with it?”

But changing people’s mindset when it comes to fertilizer is still slow-going. “It’s like trying to turn the Titanic with a tugboat,” Haney says.

In the meantime, residents like those evacuated down the hill from Piney Point will keep shouldering the risks posed by industrial fertilizers. Mountainous piles of waste from phosphate mining will keep growing because no one really knows what else to do with it except put it into piles or bury it.

People who evacuated were allowed to return to their homes last night. The risk of an imminent catastrophic phosphogypsum stack collapse has passed, at least for now. The stacks still loom in the distance, dominating the landscape.


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