The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has a big problem in Manatee County. It is responsible for a former phosphate mining operation that went bankrupt and left behind a toxic mess that only gets worse by the day. One effort to contain the hazard already proved disastrous. Now, they would like to build a Class I injection well and pump the problem deep into the Floridan aquifer, a process that it claims is safe and will not impact drinking or agricultural irrigation water.
Manatee County Utilities is on board and has proposed that the county spend more than $20 million to build the well. For obvious reasons, many people in Manatee County are about as comfortable with this idea as elective brain surgery. I can't say I blame them.
The site is located at the northernmost reaches of the county, adjacent to both Port Manatee and Bishop Harbor. The problem at Piney Point is a 350-acre pond filled with poisonous water. Taxpayers first inherited it in 2001, when Mulberry Phosphates Corporation went bankrupt, abandoning a fertilizer plant and its three mountainous stacks of radioactive gypsum – a byproduct of phosphate mining that has no other application and dots the landscape of Florida's Bone Valley.
Such stacks sit around and collect rainwater, which they contaminate, in this case somewhere around a billion gallons worth that is forever threatening an ecological calamity for our community. Clearly, those responsible for such a mess would like to see it go away, but just because an idea is proposed doesn't mean it is the right way to go. Instead, there seems to be some merit in calls to slow this process down and gather more information.
Last fall, Manatee County Utilities asked the DEP for a permit to build the well. The DEP is enthusiastic for what would seem to be obvious reasons, including that the county would be footing the bill for a liability the department currently holds. The county would subsequently hold the liability should anything go wrong with the well. That sounds like a great deal for one of the two parties.
In fact, the DEP is so keen on the injection well solution that its representatives inferred several times on Tuesday that if the county didn't build one, a private company might, and that they would be equally enthusiastic about granting an approval if one did. That set up familiar warnings from the county attorney's office that they would be unlikely to win in court. It also set up Manatee County Utilities' argument that building it ourselves would give us control over what goes in the well that we might otherwise lose, as a private company might look to offset costs by soliciting toxic water from other companies to inject into the well for a fee.
The collective apprehension from those not with the DEP or Manatee County Utilities is well earned to say the least. If you know anything about the subject, the mere words Piney Point usually causes your sphincter to clench. The site has already hosted numerous industrial accidents, a sulfuric gas leak that led to illness and dead cattle, and of course the toxic spills – including an intentional discharge into the Gulf of Mexico by the DEP in 2003, which spawned a historic red tide bloom, devastating the area's tourism industry. These have all been much less than what we've been told were worst case scenarios.
Most recently, when the DEP sold the site to HRK Holdings in 2006, the company hatched a plan to fill the gypsum stacks with material dredged from Port Manatee while port officials were deepening the waters to allow for larger ships. We were told that filling the stacks with the port's spoil would be the best way to prevent water from accumulating in them, and that the problem would be all but solved.
In 2011 of course, a rupture in the liner of one of the stacks led to the discharge of 170 million gallons of that poisonous water into Bishop Harbor. HRK filed for bankruptcy, sending the cursed land back to DEP and the taxpayers, who have thus far footed a bill of somewhere around $150-200 million before they start stroking checks for a well. The cost of that will likely be somewhere around $22-25 million more, assuming nothing goes wrong – a big assumption given the site's history.
Tuesday's Manatee County Commission workshop was a familiar scene. A bunch of people in suits paraded across the dais giving assurances that the plan was safe, necessary and prudent. The commission asked questions about something that in all fairness, they really couldn't be expected to fully understand; then a stream of distraught and often surprisingly-knowledgeable members of the public tried to squeeze their concerns and dissent into the allotted three minutes that individuals are restricted to during public comment.
We were told that Florida has around 180 active Class I wells and there have only been four “incidents,” three of which were “corrected,” while the other was sealed. From what I could find, there is somewhere just over 600 Class I wells throughout the United States. That would put at least a quarter of them in our state, which the presentation also claimed was particularly suited geologically (and I would imagine politically) to hosting such wells.
We were told that the injection site would be far beneath the part of the aquifer that is used for drinking water or irrigation, and that it is totally sealed off from that portion. We were also told that a reverse osmosis plant the county plans to build in 2020 would need such a well for its byproducts (the most common use for such wells today) and that by building this one, we'd be offsetting some of the future costs associated with that facility.
However, the fact of the matter is no one has ever used deep well injection to get rid of toxic phosphate byproducts. That's the reality and no matter how many assurances are given on pretreatment or other steps that would be taken, it causes most people's hair on the back of their necks to stand up. Bottom line: this is a new approach, even if it's using an old technology.
To paraphrase one of the citizens who gave public comment at Tuesday's workshop, every catastrophe in history had been pronounced harmless at some point before things went pear shaped. From the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that recently poisoned our gulf, to the spewing of millions of gallons of toxic discharge at the very site in question, the science behind the endeavors that ultimately led to those incidents had been pronounced sound – and often by experts much better credentialed than those who presented Tuesday.
When it comes to disposing of toxic waste, history is riddled with environmental missteps that were hailed as scientific solutions. The staggering price alone should designate this as the kind of project that the board moves slowly on and with much public input and outside research. However, this is about much more than cost and much more than the here and now. This is about protecting the very foundation of human life for generations to come. When you consider what is at stake, it's difficult not to come away feeling as though the process that is under way has not been nearly as cautious and comprehensive as that which is deserved.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.