At the end of March 2021, a leak was discovered in a wastewater reservoir at the old Piney Point fertilizer processing plant, located in Manatee County. The Florida Department of Environment Protection issued an emergency order permitting the controlled release of millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay to prevent a potentially catastrophic failure of the plant’s containment system. Although the wastewater was not as contaminated as it used to be due to new treatments, it still contained elevated levels of the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen. All told, about 215 million gallons of polluted water was discharged into Tampa Bay over a seven-day period before the plant was stabilized.
Phosphorus and nitrogen feed algae, and too much of these nutrients can lead to algae overgrowth that is harmful to wildlife. Indeed, this type of pollution can kill large numbers of fish and other marine life. Although the wastewater was strategically released to minimize that amount of damage it would cause, it still dumped pollutants into Port Manatee, which is between two aquatic preserves. As one local environmental advocate, Glenn Compton, explains, “People come here to enjoy Tampa Bay and the resources it has, whether it be canoeing, boating, fishing or just enjoying wildlife in general. So the potential economic impact will be significant should the worst case scenario play out, and by all indications it looks like we are heading towards that worst case scenario.”
As of late April, there were algae blooms located around Piney Point. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection believes the blooms are not a direct result of the Piney Point discharges but could be exacerbated by them.
Environmental advocates are also frustrated by this situation because this is not the first time there has been a leak at Piney Point. According to Compton, the problems with Piney Point can be traced back to 1960s and have no easy solution. There was a prior leak in 2011. In 2013, an underground injection plan was approved but never implemented due to concerns about future consequences. A 2019 study concluded that the plant could reach capacity within two years. Compton believes lawmakers have avoided the problem because closing down the defunct plant would be extremely costly. But since the problem was not taken care of sooner, the controlled release was needed to prevent a catastrophic breach.
On April 13, Governor Ron DeSantis announced plans to permanently close Piney Point and pre-treat water at the site to mitigate environmental impacts in case additional controlled discharges are required. He also vowed to investigate the events that led up to these leaks at Piney Point and take legal action against the owner of the plant, HRK Holdings.
Zachary T. Sampson, “Red Tide is cause of concern near Piney Point discharge in Tampa Bay,” Tampa Bay Times, April 23, 2021, https://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/2021/04/23/red-tide-is-cause-of-concern-near-piney-point-discharge-in-tampa-bay/
Jesse Mendoza, “Have questions about the Piney Point wastewater release? We have answers,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 5, 2021, https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/news/local/manatee/2021/04/05/piney-point-manatee-county-florida-answers-frequently-asked-questions/7088341002/
Jesse Mendoza, “Wastewater from Piney Point released into Tampa Bay following leak at phosphogypsum stack,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 30, 2012, https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/news/local/manatee/2021/03/30/wastewater-piney-point-manatee-county-released-into-tampa-bay/7053574002/
Jennifer Titus & Lauren Powell, “Piney Point: How did we get to this emergency?” Tampa Bay 10, April 5, 2021, https://www.wtsp.com/article/news/investigations/10-investigates/piney-point-florida-timeline-of-issues/67-650e7d75-f42e-4db5-bdd9-8436884c7c8a
Paulina Firozi & Brittany Shammas, “Florida officials scramble to prevent ‘catastrophic flood,’ of contaminated water from leaking reservoir,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/04/04/piney-point-breach-florida/
Zachary T. Sampson, ” ‘50,000 bags of fertilizer:’ What could Piney Point do to Tampa Bay?” Tampa Bay Times, April 5, 2021, https://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/2021/04/05/50000-bags-of-fertilizer-what-could-piney-point-do-to-tampa-bay/
Joe Hendricks, “Governor orders permanent closure of Piney Point,” April 19, 2021, Anna Maria Island Sun, https://www.amisun.com/2021/04/19/governor-orders-permanent-closure-of-piney-point/