Piney Point is a small mountain of waste phosphogypsum called a “gypstack,” with earthwork berm-retained lakes on top for settling out the waste phosphogypsum, and recycling the acidic process fluids used in fertilizer manufacturing. The current spill is just the latest in a string of disasters and near-disasters associated with Florida’s phosphate fertilizer industry. The barely-controlled discharge of more than 200 million gallons has, by credible estimates, inserted 150 metric tons of nitrogen, the region’s most powerful nutrient pollutant, into the Tampa Bay ecosystem.

The cell (lake) that was pumped into Tampa Bay was the “good” cell — it had been nearly empty until FDEP transferred the Piney Point property to HRK Holdings, which was allowed to develop the property as a landfill in 2006. HRK refilled the cell with material somewhat more benign than typical process fluids found in the cells atop other gypstacks, where fertilizer plants are still humming away. Time will tell how bad this spill may have been, as the nutrients are assimilated into the Tampa Bay ecosystem with the capacity to fuel explosive blooms of potentially harmful algae.

The other two cells atop Piney Point are still filled with extremely hazardous process fluids.

Remarkably, after 15 years of rainfall and motley attempts by FDEP to accelerate evaporation,the fluids remain as hazardous as they were the day they were pumped up there, even though the fertilizer plant has been dismantled and scrapped for over a decade.

There are 23 other gypstacks, most of them larger than Piney Point. They are scattered throughout the “Bone Valley,” so named because of thick deposits of fossilized, phosphate-rich marine life. Several of the other stacks have experienced catastrophes, none more so than the two stacks at New Wales, which have breached twice and developed two sinkholes since 1994.

The latest, in 2016, also made international news, but since the spill went straight underground into the Floridan Aquifer — the state’s primary drinking water source — the news died down soon after the sinkhole was filled and closed. Out of sight, out of mind.

There are several common-sense steps that can prevent another Piney Point, or worse.

1. Require the FDEP to get tougher with the phosphate industry. Bankrupt or not, force the industry to begin Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) on stack fluids immediately. We do not accept procrastination and postponement as viable preventive measures. Piney Point is a clear example of the consequences of “kicking the can down the road.”

2. Empty the cells and seal off the gypstacks now, not 30 years from now. The dry flanks of the 24 stacks in the Bone Valley contain a high percentage of ultra-fine dusts, some particles as small as 1 micron, a clear and present health threat to communities throughout west-central Florida.

3. End the dishonest process of “blending,” in which toxic and hazardous wastes are diluted with tens of millions of gallons per day of prime groundwater — available free to the industry — and then releasing it into surface waters — many of them drinking water sources — once it meets state standards.

4. Any further production of radioactive phosphogypsum and extremely hazardous process fluids must be halted immediately.

5. Firmly oppose the use of phosphogypsum for “Radioactive Roads.”

6. If FDEP can’t handle the job, bring in the federal EPA to regulate the phosphate industry.

7. Require the industry to use reclaimed water for its 90 million gallons per day usage. The state’s water crisis simply cannot permit wasting precious potable water resources.

Andy Mele, MS, is an environmental scientist who has recently formed the Peace+Myakka Waterkeeper. Much of the phosphate industry falls within his group’s geographical jurisdiction.


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