Environmental groups plan suit to stop Piney Point injection well plans

ABC7 News at 6pm
Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 3:01 PM EDT
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MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WWSB) - Several conservation groups have announced their intention to sue Manatee County over plans to use a deep injection well to dispose of wastewater from the former phosphate processing plant at Piney Point.

In the notice sent to Manatee County, state environmental officials, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. attorney general, the groups allege that “disposing of hazardous waste through underground injection presents an imminent and substantial endangerment by releasing, leaking, leaching or otherwise causing solid and hazardous waste to enter groundwaters, where it is then transported off-site into nearby groundwaters and the underlying aquifer.”

The notice, announced Wednesday, was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation.

“This risky, shortsighted plan would be a dangerous experiment and set a troubling precedent for how we handle failing phosphogypsum stacks,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The phosphate industry and FDEP continue to fail to ensure safe disposal of the industry’s polluted waste,” said Justin Bloom, Suncoast Waterkeeper founder and board member. “Manatee County shouldn’t ‘carry their water’ at Piney Point, particularly where there is no plan to remove legacy toxic and radioactive contaminants before dumping millions of gallons of wastewater down the well.”

This is not the first lawsuit in this case. In June the groups filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, HRK Holdings, LLC and the Manatee County Port Authority for the April release of hundreds of tons of hazardous pollutants from Piney Point into Tampa Bay and groundwater.

Manatee County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes has not responded to a request from ABC7 for comment.

Options are limited

The court-appointed receiver for the Piney Point facility, Tampa bankruptcy attorney Herbert Donica, told ABC7 on Thursday he understands and shares the environmental groups’ concerns. “I’m on their side. I want this problem to be gone,” he said.

But options are limited, Donica pointed out. “I do note that they (environmentalists) have objected to nearly everything. Some of it is valid, of course,” he said, adding the groups who are suing have not come up with an alternative plan to deal with the cleanup of the site.

The problem, Donica said, is that the phosphogypsum holding ponds -- called stacks -- have to be drained of wastewater in order to finish cleaning up the facility. “We can’t work on the stack if there’s water there.” As of Sept. 29, approximately 271 million gallons are currently held within the stack that sprung a leak in April.

Evaporation techniques won’t work, Donica said, because it can’t keep up with additional water added by normal rainfall. If they simply pumped the wastewater into Tampa Bay, “You’d have a riot,” he said.

More than 180 deep injection wells are operating in Florida, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s by far the best solution and the best outcome. It’s not perfect, but it’s where we are,” Donica said.

A troubled legacy

In April, a leak in a wall of one of the phosphogypsum stacks prompted local evacuations and forced officials to release 215 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay in order to avoid an even larger disaster.

Manatee County has pledged to close the site permanently. The deep injection well will send the remaining wastewater thousands of feet underground. The Environmental Protection Agency says injection zones typically range from 1,700 to more than 10,000 feet in depth.

The theory behind injection wells is that the potentially hazardous waste is separated from an aquafer by multiple layers of rock. If one layer leaks, the next layer keeps waste from spreading before it reaches groundwater.

The problem, critics say, is that in reality, geologic formations are never as neat as they usually appear in sketches. A ProPublica report on injection wells which pointed out that rock layers aren’t always neatly stacked as they appear in engineers’ sketches. They often fold and twist, making leakage more likely.

“There are too many unknowns for this to be our way forward,” said Megan Eakins, board chair of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. “We need more clarity about injection well risks, the composition of the waste stream, and alternatives to be sure that this is the best way to protect our vulnerable environment and communities from this toxic, radioactive waste.”

Concerned residents will get a chance to have their say and hear from engineers at a Florida Department of Environmental Protection public hearing in Manatee County scheduled Oct. 6.

The notice sent to all potential parties can be read below:

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