MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — A plan to close the former Piney Point phosphate mining facility for good is finally in motion.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has approved the conceptual closure plan prepared by the site's court-appointed receiver — a huge milestone in the state's journey to close its chapter on the wastewater emergency and its lasting effects.
According to a release from the DEP, the plan will ensure that the facility's "potential threat to the environment and surrounding community is eliminated permanently." The goal is for the final closure to be completed by Dec. 2024.
In March 2021, a tear in one of the former Piney Point facility's reservoirs caused concern over a potential collapse. In order to prevent a crisis, crews discharged more than 200-million gallons of untreated wastewater into Tampa Bay.
"Today, as a result of ongoing efforts on the part of DEP, Manatee County and the court-appointed receiver, we are in a significantly better place than we were then, and this approval marks a key milestone in ensuring this is the last chapter in the long history of Piney Point," DEP Secretary Shawn Hamilton said.
Here's a look at the approved plan.
As of the beginning of this year, reports say there are 397 million gallons of water across all four of Piney Point's gypsum stacks — a majority of which is located in the retention pond that had a tear last year which caused the panic.
To remove all that wastewater, a majority of the heavy lifting must be done by a recently built deep-injection well. Leaders say more than 200 million gallons of the remaining water will be treated to remove nutrients and then sent 3,300 feet into the ground.
The rest of the water will be removed by using an underdrain seepage collection system, evaporation sprinklers and draining pore water from the soft sediments.
However, the receiver's plan makes it clear that it is all contingent on the deep injection well being completed. Manatee County has said the well will begin receiving water in 2023.
Once all the water is removed, the plan is to place a liner over the stacks and cover them under two feet of compacted soil.
The DEP says it will continue to monitor the Piney Point facility throughout all of the construction. The agency will also require the receiver to submit monthly progress reports "to ensure compliance and continued progress."
Skye Grundy lives near the facility and says, the closure plan doesn't bring her much relief.
"A closure plan, I don’t think, brings me anymore sense of safety or security," she said. "The only thing that will I think will be if they are coming on to my street and testing our water from our aquifer to the level it needs to be, or providing us with city water.”
Grundy says, since the reservoir tear last year, she's been worried about what could be in the water.
"Since this leak happened, we've really felt like the county should step up and take some responsibility so that we don’t end up 20 years down the road so where county commissioners are sitting up there saying, 'We didn’t have anything to do with this, so we can’t help that you got cancer from your water.'"