Manatee’s environmental scourge recast as asset
Sarasota Herald Tribune
STAFF PHOTO / TOM BENDER
Eastport Terminal manager Jeff Barath says, “the remediation and redevelopment of the former Piney Point Phosphates facility has taken great vision and resolve by HRK. Purchasing the site in 2006 as a dilapidated chemical plant we had to spend the next three years just addressing environmental clean up and demolition before we could begin any new development.”
By Kate Spinner
Published: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 9:00 p.m.
PALMETTO – Across U.S. 41 from the Port of Manatee, a large grassy hill looms unnaturally over the flat landscape, overshadowing a cluster of new industrial silos.
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A view of the lined reservoirs up top on the old gypsum stacks. The reservoirs will be used to store dredge waste from the Port Manatee expansion and will eventually be capped.
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A view of the new geodesic dome structures housing fertilizer used in today’s agriculture industry.
No trace remains of the fertilizer plant that operated here for 40 years, or of the company that drove it into bankruptcy and left behind a $144 million environmental disaster for taxpayers to shoulder.
But even as new owners try to recast this property as Eastport Terminal, the road here still bears the infamous name Piney Point.
And the grassy hill? A slightly radioactive phosphogypsum stack that once held 1.2 billion gallons of toxic water behind crumbling walls, it stands as testament to Piney Point’s history.
The name conjures memories of a litany of environmental problems, culminating in an unprecedented emergency in 2003, in which the state dumped millions of gallons of the fertilizer processing wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico to keep it from cascading onto nearby land and into Tampa Bay.
Before that, there were industrial accidents leading to employee deaths, toxic spills that forced area evacuations and a sulfuric gas leak that caused illness in the community.
Today the land is transforming into a potential economic asset, a pioneering model, state officials hope, for two dozen similar sites statewide that are contaminated with the toxic byproducts of phosphate fertilizer production.
The new silos are partially filled with 30,000 tons of imported fertilizer. A nearby warehouse holds tons of salt, the kind used in swimming pools. Hundreds of acres in the shadow of the gypsum stack are available for more bulk storage or light manufacturing.
After a decade of work, the state considers the site safe for new industry and has handed responsibility for cleaning up the small amount of remaining contamination to the new owner, HRK Holdings, LLC.
“It’s a success story at this point, in terms of having the work created there and having the site fully transition to the new owner,” said John Coates, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Protection’s water resource management division.
But for environmental groups, the story is less about success than it is about coping with the state’s bitter, ongoing legacy of phosphate mining and fertilizer production on thousands of acres of land in Southwest and Central Florida.
In 2001, Piney Point looked like it might become the state’s biggest environmental disaster. Mulberry Corporation had abandoned the property with highly acidic water stored precariously behind berms of radioactive phosphogypsum — the two by-products of turning phosphate rock into phosphoric acid for fertilizer.
Making matters worse, a tropical storm that year dumped 19 inches of rain over the property. The berms holding the acid water began to pit and erode. Three more inches of rain, and the toxic water would have breached the berm and spilled into nearby Bishop Harbor, a shallow estuary of Tampa Bay.
In emergency mode, the state made some tough, costly and controversial decisions to prevent a cataclysmic disaster.
Among the most controversial, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permitted the state to dump 500 million gallons of fertilizer process water into the Gulf after treatment and and neutralization. About 248 million gallons were dumped 100 miles offshore in the summer and fall of 2003. The water was considered too high in nutrients — these enhance algal blooms — to release into Bishop Harbor.
Later, the state treated the remaining waste water for direct disposal into the harbor, using portable reverse-osmosis filters.
The new owners are optimistic about the future of Piney Point as Eastport Terminal, a distribution center that will feed off the expansion of the Port of Manatee this year, said manager Jeff Barath.
Barath first stepped on the property in 2003 as an environmental compliance consultant working for DEP. His first reaction was “what a mess.” Now he sees opportunity in the revived landscape, a rare break in the norm where tarnished land is simply covered and left to sit unused.
Piney Point still contains mountains of phosphogypsum that must remain untouched and covered in grass. The gypsum is acidic and too radioactive to be used for other purposes, such as roadfill or wallboard.
But not all of Piney Point is marred. It also has undeveloped acreage ideal for industry. Its location across from the port and close to two major interstates makes it ideal for distributing international goods, Barath said.
HRK bought the 680-acre property for $4.3 million in 2006. While the state took responsibility for most of the cleanup, HRK contributed $3.8 million. The company also must maintain the phosphogypsum stacks indefinitely, at an estimated cost of $250,000 annually, as about 100 million gallons of acidic wastewater evaporates or is treated and drained.
The DEP lined the reservoirs that once held toxic water with rugged plastic to keep contaminants out of the groundwater. The lined reservoirs will be used to store dredge waste from the port expansion and will eventually be capped.
HRK cleared the site of decaying infrastruction, recycling the metal to pay for cleaning up the old factory.
The property also came with industrial infrastructure — plumbing to electric — and industrial use allowances, including permits for 390 truck trips on site per day.
Art Roth, in the fertilizer marketing business for 61 years, was the catalyst behind the sale. When Manatee said it was not interested in buying the property, Roth notified investors he knew who specialized in turning around troubled property.
Three investors formed HRK and Roth was appointed the company’s local representative. “It’s not pretty, but it’s industry,” Barath said. “It’s a perfectly engineered industrial facility.”
A large portion of the $144 million the state paid for cleaning up the site came from taxes paid into a trust fund by the phosphate industry. But those funds were intended for restoring land that was mined before 1975, when environmental laws requiring restoration went into effect. Piney Point diverted about $50 million of the funds, setting back progress on other projects. Also, the state Legislature spent money from the general fund.
The trust fund now holds about $47 million and mine reclamation is back on track with about $23 million in projects ongoing.
The Piney Point fiasco prompted legislative change in 2005. To shield taxpayers from being saddled with another Piney Point, phosphate companies must report their finances quarterly to the DEP and keep enough in savings to cover the cost of closure.
But some still worry that laws aren’t strict enough, and that the savings required aren’t enough to avoid the same type of disaster.
“It’s a wait-and-see and keep your fingers crossed that the next company doesn’t go belly-up and walk away,” said Glenn Compton, president of the local environmental group Manasota-88.