Thank you to all of the Conservation Voters that took action to protect our water. On Oct 6, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) held a public open house in Bradenton. The purpose was to discuss the controversial deep injection well permit being sought by Manatee County to dispose of waste water from the Piney Point phosphogypsum facility. But the format limited meaningful public participation, didn’t provide adequate assurance that our water would be protected, and put the burden on Floridians (rather than the agencies) to understand a complex issue.
The Piney Point site which formerly treated phosphorous rock for the creation of fertilizer has been rife with catastrophes. The discharge of more than 215 million gallons of polluted process into Tampa Bay in April 2021 was the most egregious violation, but it wasn’t the first. Back in 2011, a discharge of nearly 170 million gallons occurred, following multiple changes in ownership and overall mismanagement of the facility.
It’s clear that we need a complete and safe closure of Piney Point. And we need to avoid further assaults on our natural environment and economy. With that in mind, Manatee County is seeking to build and operate an underground injection control (UIC) well to dispose of the nearly 570 million gallons of water that remain in man-made ponds at the site. However, details were sparse about how thoroughly the water would be treated before being injected into the ground, the total costs, and the long-term timeline for water disposal and plant closure.
Like many Tampa Bay residents, I attended the public meeting to get answers and share my concerns. I also wanted to hear from other people in the local community. However, the public open house format is designed to limit meaningful public participation and prevent people from hearing what their friends and neighbors are saying. Rather than share your comments at a podium where all in attendance can hear and agencies are responsive to the collective group, you are given a piece of paper to scribble some notes or instructed to find a quiet corner so you can speak them into a recorder. October 6 was the last day to provide comments and local media reported that DEP had received more than 5,000 comments from the public prior to the meeting, including from many Conservation Voters.
By 4 p.m. when the meeting started, the small room within the Manatee County Library was already filled to an uncomfortable level. Unnamed consultants hovered around posters like a science fair. Government officials from Manatee County, DEP, and others also milled around, many talking to the numerous news reporters in attendance. DEP and others will suggest that the format encourages people to ask questions and spend as much time as they need. But since there was no unifying presentation and the topic is complicated, it puts the onus on everyday Floridians to know exactly what to ask.
Because I had reviewed the 48-page draft permit and read daily emails from DEP, I knew which topics weren’t covered. In particular, I wanted clear answers about the level of treatment for the remaining polluted water at Piney Point. The answers, however, were unsatisfactory even after speaking with nearly every official or consultant on site. I was shown a table in a printed document from a contractor of different pollutant values labeled “treatment plant effluent quality.” Someone else told me that no water quality standards applied, but that the project would “still be protective of the drinking water.” No one was able to produce a succinct explanation of how thoroughly the water would be treated nor the total volume that may be discharged thousands of feet into the ground. I was also told that a well may cost $14 million, but that the state may need to commit another $200 million on top of its $100 million investment last year. To put the burden of cleanup and closure on the backs of everyday Floridians is unfair as for-private phosphate corporations made money on the operation and then conveniently file for bankruptcy. I learned that it would take about two and a half years for the water to be injected at a rate of a million gallons per day, but that the well would be in operation for 30 years to fully receive all remaining “seepage water.” Even for someone with a scientific background, it was hard to have a clear understanding of what would ultimately happen and what our long-term risks may be.
FCV has stated that “While we seek a timely closure to Piney Point, we must adequately treat the polluted water before storing or disposing of it. Expediting a permit to inject hazardous process water presents an unacceptable risk to the health of our water supply and the local community.” What that means is that we need more assurances that our long-term ecological and human health will not be jeopardized simply because we want to close the book on this ugly chapter for good.
Piney Point presents a suite of sub-optimal choices. Discharging millions of gallons of water into Tampa Bay, with even small concentrations of pollutants, could further stress our fragile coastal ecosystem. Sophisticated technologies like Reverse Osmosis (RO) are expensive and also require more time for treatment. If we’re to assume there is a finite amount of public funding for environmental and water quality programs statewide, investing more money here may come at the expense of protecting water quality elsewhere. And due to previous failures at the site and the potential for additional damage to the liner and stacks, we can’t sit on our hands and wish for the perfect solution. Deep well injection may be the least damaging disposal option if the water is treated to an acceptable level. If that’s the case, the parties leading this effort need to give the public better answers so that we can get on board with the least bad option.
At a minimum, Florida residents deserve to know exactly what is happening with our water.