Florida lawmakers budget $3 million to clean up Piney Point and help “put it behind us once and for all”

Piney Point, a former phosphate mining facility that has been leaking potentially toxic water in the Tampa Bay area, may soon be cleaned up and heading to permanent closure. On Wednesday, Florida state senators passed an amendment that would allocate $3 million to clean up and safely dispose of the wastewater that, for decades, has caused anxiety and frustration among locals and environmentalists.

The amendment, introduced by Senator Jim Boyd, allocates $3 million of the upcoming fiscal budget to the Piney Point Emergency Water Treatment Project to “safely dispose of wastewater and perform site cleanup.” The amendment is part of the General Appropriations Act, which determines the state’s budget for the next fiscal year.

The state senate is set to finalize the budget later this month.   

Senator Darryl Rouson, who co-sponsored the water treatment amendment, told senators on Wednesday that the leaking water from Piney Point “has serious implications to the fragile environment it represents.” 

“We cannot stand idly by while this environmental hazard is dealt with,” Rouson added.

Senator Janet Cruz, who visited Piney Point on Tuesday, said she was “astounded” by what she saw and that the conditions at the property are “an issue.” 

“This is a fix for private property,” she said, “and now we are essentially stuck taking care of this.” 

As of Wednesday, roughly 258 million gallons of water remained in the south wastewater pond, the one that has been leaking. Officials said they are removing 38 million gallons per day, and that 173 million gallons have been discharged into Port Manatee. Water samples have shown that the areas surrounding the discharge point in Port Manatee have “elevated levels of phosphorous,” according to Florida environmental officials. 

A local funding initiative request submitted by Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and sponsored by Boyd had been filed in January, months before the ongoing leak began. 

In the request, Baugh noted that Piney Point “is managed by a holding company with insufficient assets to manage an accidental spill” and that such a spill could create “an overwhelming environmental impact.” The state funding, according to the request, will be used to treat the water and “prevent harmful phosphorous, nitrogen and fluoride from reaching local water bodies and protection from catastrophic failure of stack containment and untreated discharge of phosphogypsum process water.” 

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson said Monday in a press release that, “This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen for too long. …We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in 5, 10, or 20 years. This is exactly the kind of longstanding infrastructure issue we need to address with the nonrecurring federal funds our state will receive from the American Rescue Plan.”

Simpson anticipates it will cost up to $200 million to completely close Piney Point, and has committed to using stimulus money from the American Rescue Plan to help cover the cost. He also told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting that he may order an assessment of “how many Piney Points” are in Florida. He added that Florida lawmakers are determined to enact regulations to better hold private owners of these facilities accountable. 

“This is long overdue,” he said. “We need to get a better handle.”

Boyd said that with the facility having “at least one prior accident” to the most recent and ongoing breach, “recent events have illuminated the need to fix this problem and put it behind us once and for all.” 

On Tuesday, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried toured the Piney Plant facility. “We need to be getting to the bottom of what exactly happened, how did it get this far, and how do we prevent things like this from happening in the future,” she said. 

Live update on what I’ve just seen at #PineyPoint. https://t.co/KZYDHNZ1Nd

Florida’s 27 phosphate mines, including Piney Point, cover more than 450,000 acres in all. Nine of the facilities remain active, while another nine have completely “reclaimed” the land they used for mining, meaning that operators have resoiled and replanted the area. The remaining nine mines are either “not started or are shut down,” according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. 

The majority of the state’s phosphate mining currently occurs in the central Florida areas known as “Bone Valley,” according to FDLE. 

While the ongoing issue at Piney Point has made national headlines, it is not the first leak the facility has dealt with. In 2011, a leak sent more than 170 million gallons of process water into Bishop Harbor, the Bradenton Herald reported.

Just months before the most recent leak forced people to evacuate their homes on Easter weekend over fears the reservoir was on the brink of a “catastrophic” collapse, HRK Holdings representative Jeff Barath warned commissioners that three ponds holding contaminated process water were approaching capacity. 

Florida Representative Vern Buchanan also warned the Environmental Protection Agency about the situation, and asked them to get involved. 

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