MANATEE COUNTY – The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has issued a draft Clean Water Act permit for the Piney Point phosphate facility in Manatee County. The permit comes in the wake of litigation brought forth by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88, and Our Children’s Earth Foundation. The previous permit for the facility expired in March 2001.
"It’s good that the facility is going to get an updated permit after 22 years, but it’s too little, too late to fix the ongoing environmental burden Piney Point has placed on Floridians and our environment," said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Florida regulators have catered to the phosphate industry for way too long, ignoring public health and our environment along the way. Tampa Bay is just the latest victim of Florida’s neglect."
to view a PDF of the draft permit.
The Piney Point phosphogypsum stack is a large, elevated water body filled with toxic materials and topped by an impoundment of hundreds of millions of gallons of process wastewater, stormwater, and dredged spoil from Port Manatee. Two years ago, after discovering a leak in the facility’s reservoir liner, regulators ordered the discharge of 215 million gallons of wastewater from the gypstack into Tampa Bay in an attempt to avert a catastrophic collapse and flooding.
"Congress empowered citizens to hold both polluter and regulator accountable when the requirements of the Clean Water Act are violated, as was the case here," said Dan Snyder, senior attorney at Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project. "While the issuance of an NPDES permit for Piney Point is a big step in bringing the facility into compliance with federal law, there is substantial work that remains to be done."
During the 2021 wastewater release, Tampa Bay received more nitrogen–approximately 180 metric tons–than it usually receives from all other sources in an entire year. Following the release, Tampa Bay experienced a deadly red tide that killed more than 600 tons of marine life in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
"We are only two years removed from one of the worst environmental disasters we've seen," said Justin Tramble, executive director of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. "We saw dumpsters of dead fish, an obliteration of our watershed and our fishery. Tampa Bay is resilient, but Piney Point's continued impacts have no doubt tested that resiliency."
State regulators recently approved the injection of the remaining 250 million gallons of toxic waste from the Piney Point gypstacks into a deep well in Manatee County. That process, which began on April 4, is controversial because the injection well sits only about 1,500 feet below the Florida aquifer, which supplies drinking water to millions of Floridians.
"Florida’s phosphate mining industry is an industry of cradle-to-grave pollution," said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, Inc. "The cradle is phosphate mining, and the grave is the radioactive phosphogypsum waste dumped into gypstacks. The gypstacks at Piney Point represent the true legacy the phosphate industry will leave behind. There is no economically feasible or environmentally sound way to close an abandoned gypstack. This legacy includes the perpetual spending of taxpayer monies and risks to the public’s health and the environment."
Recent testing of the waste being injected into the well show high levels of arsenic. The wastewater also contains sulfate pollution at levels 16 times greater than what the EPA has determined is safe in drinking water.
The groups involved in the lawsuit that prompted the new draft permit are represented by Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project and the Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt.