Piney Point explainer: What is Phosphogypsum?

Piney Point explainer: What is Phosphogypsum?
A reported and regulated wastewater spill is going into the Tampa Bay from Piney Point through Port Manatee and into the bay. (Source: wwsb)

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WWSB) - The Manatee County Commission voted unanimously Thursday to declare a state of emergency due to the liner tear at the gypsum stack at the former phosphate plant on Piney Point.

The emergency order was in response to concerns that a leak in one of the stacks could cause a collapse that would affect nearby communities. Crews discovered a leak in March and have been actively monitoring water capacity at the former phosphate mining site. HRK Holdings, LLC, is responsible for the operation of the closed phosphogypsum stacks, and they self-reported after finding a tear in one of the compartments.

Although collapse is not imminent, officials discovered a more significant breach in one of the retention ponds. As such, evacuations have been issued for areas around the former phosphate plant. Officials say that at the current flow rate, the county can rapidly deplete the water and pressure to prevent a full breach. This process could take 10 to 12 days.

So what is phosphogypsum?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, phosphogypsum is the primary waste byproduct of the wet-acid process for producing phosphoric acid. Phosphate rock may contain significant quantities of naturally occurring radioactive materials like uranium, thorium and radium and, ultimately, their decay byproducts. Phosphate is typically used to create fertilizer but can also be turned into phosphoric acid, which is also used in some types of animal feed and some types of cosmetics.

About 90 percent of domestic production happens in the southern U.S. with Florida accounting for 80% of that.

The Department of Environmental Protection told ABC7 that HRK Holdings, the group who is responsible for the site, is still trying to stop the leak from a portion of the stack system at the site that was entering Piney Point Creek. And they’re hoping that it’ll be fixed and the stack stabilized long before the authorized dump limit of 480 million gallons is reached.

Environmentalists are concerned that a release of the leak into the waters off Port Manatee may cause an increase of algae blooms. These blooms can cause oxygen depletion and block sunlight from organisms. Some types of blooms can create toxins that can kill wildlife and also hurt those who depend on fishing and farming oysters as a livelihood.

The DEP says HRK is still trying to stop the leak from a portion of the stack system at the site that was entering Piney Point Creek. Still, it’s an ongoing discharge of polluted water right into Tampa Bay and all the regulators can do for now is watch.

Source: EPA

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