For Immediate Release, May 1, 2023
Ragan Whitlock, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 426-3653, firstname.lastname@example.org
Florida Issues Draft Permit for Piney Point Phosphate Facility Following Clean Water Act Lawsuit
Problematic Site Has Operated Without Permitting for More Than 20 Years
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Following litigation, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has issued a draft Clean Water Act permit for the Piney Point phosphate facility in Manatee County. The previous permit for the facility expired in March 2001.
“It’s good that the facility will get an updated permit after 22 years, but it’s too little, too late to fix the environmental burden Piney Point has put on Floridians and our environment,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Florida regulators have catered to the phosphate industry for way too long, ignoring public health and our environment along the way. Tampa Bay is just the latest victim of Florida’s neglect.”
The Piney Point phosphogypsum stack is a mountainous heap of toxic waste topped by an impoundment of hundreds of millions of gallons of process wastewater, stormwater and tons of dredged spoil from Port Manatee. Two years ago, after discovering a leak in the facility’s reservoir liner, regulators ordered the discharge of 215 million gallons of wastewater from the gypstack into Tampa Bay in an attempt to avert a catastrophic collapse and flooding. The massive, fish-killing discharge of toxic, untreated wastewater followed years of regulatory failures and mismanagement at the facility.
“Congress empowered citizens to hold both polluter and regulator accountable when the requirements of the Clean Water Act are violated, as was the case here,” said Dan Snyder, senior attorney at Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project. “While the issuance of a NPDES permit for Piney Point is a big step in bringing the facility into compliance with federal law, there is substantial work that remains to be done.”
During the 2021 wastewater release, Tampa Bay received more nitrogen — approximately 180 metric tons — than it usually receives from all other sources in an entire year. The red tides that have plagued Florida are fueled by nitrogen.
Following the release, Tampa Bay experienced a deadly red tide that killed more than 600 tons of marine life in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
The millions of gallons of wastewater discharged into Tampa Bay continue to spread throughout the estuary and into Sarasota Bay, transporting tons of nitrogen and other pollutants into waterways and communities that are already struggling to manage excessive pollution that has impaired waterways and killed thousands of acres of seagrasses.
"We are only two years removed from one of the worst environmental disasters we've seen.” said Justin Tramble, executive director of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. “We saw dumpsters of dead fish, an obliteration of our watershed and our fishery. Tampa Bay is resilient, but Piney Point's continued impacts have no doubt tested that resiliency.”
State regulators recently approved the injection of the remaining 250 million gallons of toxic waste from the Piney Point gypstacks into a deep well in Manatee County. That process, which began on April 4, is controversial because the injection well sits only about 1,500 feet below the Florida aquifer, which supplies drinking water to millions of Floridians.
“Florida’s phosphate mining industry is an industry of cradle-to-grave pollution. The cradle is phosphate mining, and the grave is the radioactive phosphogypsum waste dumped into gypstacks,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, Inc. “The gypstacks at Piney Point represent the true legacy the phosphate industry will leave behind. There is no economically feasible or environmentally sound way to close an abandoned gypstack. This legacy includes the perpetual spending of taxpayer monies and risks to the public’s health and the environment.
Recent testing of the waste being injected into the well show high levels of arsenic, which can cause cancer, and chloride, which can erode pipes. The wastewater also contains sulfate pollution at levels 16 times greater than what the EPA has determined is safe in drinking water that can cause diarrhea and digestive problems.
The groups involved in the lawsuit that prompted the new draft permit are the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation. They are represented by Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project and the Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt.
Learn more about phosphogypsum and efforts to protect public health and the environment from its harms.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Public Justice combines high-impact litigation, strategic partnerships, and grassroots organizing with targeted communications to shape the narrative about environmental injustice and build empowering relationships with communities most affected by environmental threats and actions. The Public Justice Environmental Enforcement Project holds polluters accountable by enforcing environmental laws and winning groundbreaking results in court to protect our nation's clean water, air, and land—and the people, animals, and ecological communities that rely upon it. For more information, visit PublicJustice.net.
ManaSota-88, Inc. is a public interest conservation and environmental protection organization, which is a Florida not-for-profit corporation and a citizen of the State of Florida. The corporate purposes of ManaSota-88 include the protection of the public’s health, the preservation of air and water quality, and the protection of wildlife habitat.
Tampa Bay Waterkeeper works to defend, protect, and preserve Tampa Bay’s watershed through citizen engagement and community action rooted in sound science and research.