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Piney Point: How did we get to this emergency?

"There's no easy solution to the problems at Piney Point," an environmental watchdog said.

PALMETTO, Fla. — Piney Point has a long history of issues -- the latest emergency isn't the first.

10 Investigates' Jennifer Titus dug into the history of the facility. Some environmentalist watchdogs say these problems were in the works for years.

"I'm not surprised at all. As far as what's happened. This has been in the making for decades, you can probably trace the problems all the way back into the 1960s,” said Glenn Compton, the director of Manasota-88.

Manasota-88 is an environmental watchdog group.

“There's no easy solution to the problems at Piney Point. And the reason it hasn't been addressed is because once they start to understand the true cost of trying to close down a defunct phosphogypsum stack, policymakers tend to find other things to prioritize,” Compton said.

In 2006, HRK Holdings, a limited liability corporation, acquired the former phosphate plant.

   

Compton says the company then contracted out with Port Manatee to take dredged material and place it in one of the stacks. He calls that a huge mistake.

"It should have never been permitted. But the stack was designed to capture rainwater, it was not designed to hold dredged material from Port Manatee. And as a result of the weight and the pressure, we've had a significant tear in it previously in 2011," Compton said.

In 2013, Manatee County commissioners agreed to a solution that would send millions of gallons a day below the ground surface through underground injection, a method supported by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, but the plan never went through after concerns were raised about potential future issues.

Nothing was ever done.

"And now we have this unprecedented tear that we've never seen before at the bottom of the stack. And it's almost impossible to try to stop the water that's being discharged. So, the strategy now is to empty it out. So, we don't have a total collapse of the stack. But this could have been prevented," Compton said.

Congressman Vern Buchanan knew about the potential problems at Piney Point. He sent a letter to the EPA last fall warning that toxic water is stored at Piney Point in ponds that are approaching maximum capacity. 

He also referred to a 2019 study that found that Piney Point might have only been two years away from reaching capacity. 

“I urge the EPA to step in and protect public health and the environment,” Buchanan said in his letter to the EPA.

He says he never heard a thing until now.

“I’m angry about it frankly. And I’m making sure we're doing what we need to do to get it fixed,” Buchanan said.

“There is no best-case scenario. What we're trying to do is prevent the worst case from happening. And even though we're attempting to de-water this stack and prevent a breach," Compton said. "Once the water is out of the stack. There's no guarantees that that won't destabilize adjacent stacks. And should that happen, then we're looking at a catastrophe like we've never seen before. 

"The engineers are saying that the existing stacks are somewhat stable. I don't have a whole lot of faith in what the Department of Environmental Protection is saying or the company, because if you trace it back, these are the people that are responsible for the situation that we're in right now.”

Leaders say when it comes to how bad it may get, we’ll know that in the next couple of days. However, Compton says the problem at Piney Point will not be resolved anytime soon because we're looking at phosphogypsum stacks that are going to be radioactive for years to come.

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