A deep well injection could herald the end of spills from the Piney Point phosphate plant
The digging of a deep well at the troubled Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County has been completed. Now, workers are injecting 1 million gallons of polluted water deep underground, every day. WUSF takes a tour of the site, to see what's being done to make sure huge spills don't happen again.
Standing atop the phosphogypsum stacks at Piney Point phosphate plant, you look at the settling pond that has caused a lot of trouble in the past, including releasing more than 200 million gallons into Tampa Bay in 2021.
You can see the bay and the skyline of St. Petersburg just beyond that. The Tropicana Field dome glows white in the distance. And just to the south, the Sunshine Skyway. This is the heart of the problem that's been here for 20 years, and Herb Donica is trying to do something about that — permanently.
Donica is the court-appointed receiver responsible for closing Piney Point. Standing next to me atop the gypsum stack — which contains hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water — he points to the well, where all that water will be pumped 3,300 feet beneath us.
"This is our largest pond, approximately 270 million gallons. This is the pond we're going to drain first with the deep well injection program," Donica said, "And once we get the water level down, we'll no longer be exposed to those emergencies where the water comes through the sidewall of the stack systems."
TIMELINE: Key developments at the Piney Point phosphate plant
Spill brings a devastating toll
In 2021, this was ground zero for a leak in the earthen gypsum stack that threatened to burst and flood the surrounding area. To ease the pressure, more than 215 million gallons of nutrient-rich wastewater was released into Tampa Bay. Some studies say it worsened an outbreak of red tide, that months later killed millions of fish and marine life in the bay.
The problems at Piney Point have been going on for so long that Donica has been associated with the bankruptcy case here since 2001.
"It's like I've been asleep for 20 years. It's the same nightmare. I've been to this rodeo. Hopefully, the movie will end differently this time, right?"Herb Donica
When he came back after the last major spill, he said: "It's like I've been asleep for 20 years. It's the same nightmare. I've been to this rodeo. Hopefully, the movie will end differently this time, right?"
You can't do anything with the gypstack itself — federal regulations prohibit its use for anything, because the mining tailings are slightly radioactive. So Donica says you either leave it alone — which hasn't been the best option the past few decades — or close it.
"The problem is, underneath the existing liner is bare phosphogypsum material that still has locked-in water, suspended solids, heavy metal particulate," he said, "and what everybody is concerned about is phosphorous and nitrogen. Things that might light up the bay. So it's best just to seal it up."
That means cleaning and draining about half a billion gallons.
The stacks will then be covered with a thick sheet, with two inches of dirt and grass above that.
Not a new idea
This isn't the first time an injection well has been proposed here. It came after after another tear in 2011, when about 170 million gallons of wastewater was dumped from the site. But in 2016, the permit was denied because of opposition from nearby agricultural interests and for environmental concerns.
This time, the problem became so acute that the governor visited, and $100 million of state money was approved. This is only about half of what many believe is needed to permanently seal the stack.
It's taken something like the massive release into Tampa Bay nearly three years ago to get it done differently.
"People have got to get mad enough that this time, we're going to do something," he said. "Because not doing something brings on a risk that we can't quantify and we can't deal with, and can't insure."
But not everyone is satisfied with this solution.
"The history of Piney Point is whatever can go wrong, will go wrong."Glenn Compton of the environmental group Manasota-88
"The history of Piney Point is whatever can go wrong, will go wrong," said Glenn Compton of the environmental group Manasota-88.
He notes this is the first time that wastewater from a phosphogypsum stack will be injected underground in Florida.
"Confining layers don't confine over a long period of time, and it's very easy to miss a toxic plume that moves underground — because it's underground," Compton said. "So monitoring the wells adjacent to the deep well injection are kind of a hit-and-miss scenario of whether you can understand what's going on underground once it's injected."
Best solution to a bad problem
Jeff Barath, the site manager, said the well is deep below a limestone confining layer, in a confined saltwater aquifer over a half mile below the surface. And a companion well continuously monitors any seepage above that level.
"Quite frankly, the water that we are adding to it right now is an improvement to the water chemistry in the lower Floridan aquifer," Barath said.
He said it would take 75,000 years for all that water to seep to the surface. And he notes Manatee County has four other deep injection wells at the same layer.
After the water in the gypstack where the breach occurred is drained, work will begin on Piney Point's other gypstack reservoirs. That "process water" from fertilizer production will be pre-treated before being injected underground.
Ideas to treat the waste with a permeable membrane — like they do at desalination plants — is just not cost effective, Barath said.
So Donica says this is the best solution to a bad problem.
"We have two things to consider: environmentally responsible, economically viable, " Donica said. "If the receiver had a money printing press, I'm sure there's a lot of things we could do. But quite frankly, that's not real."
Still, environmentalists like Compton believe it's just a matter of time before there's another gypsum stack failure that the state's taxpayers are going to have to pay to fix.
"Piney Point has set the precedence that other phosphogypsum stacks will most likely take a look very carefully at whether they can get permits to discharge wastewater underground," Compton said. "It is done in other states, but this is the first time it was done in Florida. And I perceive that we'll see other proposals at other sites - probably in the very near future."
There are two dozen other gypsum stacks — including two along Tampa Bay - where this might be repeated in the future. Compton fears if something goes wrong, Floridians could be dealing with the effects for a long time.