With memories of last year’s emergency discharge of contaminated water from the former phosphate plant still fresh in people’s minds, local stakeholders anxiously watched as Hurricane Ian approached the area.
In March 2021, officials released 215 million gallons of nutrient-rich wastewater from a Piney Point reservoir into Tampa Bay to prevent a total collapse and catastrophic flooding of surrounding neighborhoods. A Manatee County Circuit Court appointed long-time Tampa attorney Herb Donica to oversee the former phosphate plant’s closing in August 2021.
Donica now has jurisdiction over the tumultuous property and is tasked with hiring contractors for its cleanup and remediation. The first and most critical step is treating wastewater in the phosphogypsum stacks at the site, and rainwater drastically complicates the process.
With forecasters predicting a major hurricane would hit somewhere near the area since last week, Donica relayed his relief that the shuttered plant dodged the brunt of the storm.
“We did much better than expected,” he said. “We’re very, very happy with where we are.”
In a previous interview with the Catalyst, Donica explained that every inch of rainfall equals another four million gallons of water that contractors must treat and release. About 100,000 gallons are transferred to Manatee County’s treatment plant daily, and evaporation systems also help keep ponds below capacity.
However, heavy summer rains forced the release of 4.5 million gallons of treated stormwater into the bay in August. Fortunately, Donica said Friday that was not an issue following Hurricane Ian.
Officials, explained Donica, strategically placed three gauges around Piney Point, which averaged about 5.75 inches of rain following the storm. He said reservoirs could now hold 24 inches of rainwater, and wind – rather than another emergency release – was the most significant concern over the last several days.
“We had just received about two million dollars worth of materials that are required to be used for recontouring the inside of the old Gyp Stack South.
“And if the wind had hit it, it would have just gone flying.”
He relayed that workers took rolls of other materials – weighing about 1,000 pounds each – and placed those, along with sandbags, on the stack’s new liners. Gyp Stack South is a 67-acre pond that once held nearly 400 million gallons of seawater mixed with contaminated processed water, and was the source of the leak that forced the governor to declare a state of emergency.
Once installed, workers will cover the new liner with two feet of topsoil and grass, and Donica believes it will mitigate any potential for new leaks. As such, ensuring it remained intact and onsite this week was critical.
“And we were able to do that because we got to start on this last Thursday (Sept. 22),” said Donica. “All hands were on deck. So, whatever wind we got did a little bit of damage, but not much.”
Access roads did suffer from erosion, Donica added, and there were still some communications issues as of Friday morning. Internet service also remained offline, and a fallen tree knocked out electricity to parts of the expansive site.
Diesel generators placed in vital areas mitigated the loss of power, which he said could run for 30 hours before refueling. “So, we got it covered.”
Despite what he called the “yellow socks” moments when officials thought the site might receive more of a direct hit, Donica said everyone involved was now breathing a sigh of relief. However, he said it was still “not a great feeling” due to the destruction in Ft. Myers.
While the closure process will likely last until 2025, Donica said Ian only set operations back by a day and a half. He expected contractors to return Monday, but noted they were back on the job Friday morning.
Workers are now collecting information for Department of Environmental Protection reports, he said, and addressing minor drainage issues. Other than that, “it is business as usual.”
“I would say our crew is very happy, very optimistic and very upbeat,” Donica said. “We had a long, long checklist of things we were going to do to make the place safe. I’m telling you, this place has never been cleaner.”