Are public concerns about the future of Piney Point being heard?
Last week, Manatee County resident Jill Gaschler leaned over a table in the auditorium of the downtown Bradenton Public Library, scribbling her thoughts on the future of Piney Point on a public comment form for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Gaschler expected more of a traditional government meeting, with a public presentation and the opportunity for public comment in front of a crowd. What she found was an array of tables, a glorified poster session, with officials from the Department of Environmental Protection and Manatee County set up to answer individual questions.
What most residents wanted to know was: what will happen to Piney Point?
In April, a leak at the former phosphate plant resulted in the release of more than 200 million gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay. Since then, Manatee County’s solution has been to inject the water remaining on the site, now totaling approximately 555 million gallons, into a well more than 3,000 feet underground.
State officials call it “the only viable method” and Manatee County officials argue it’s perfectly safe. The department already has two injection wells of this type, one of which has been operating for more than 30 years without problem. But environmentalists fear that the water still contains pollutants that could contaminate groundwater and eventually reach the region’s drinking water supply.
That concern is what brought Gaschler to last week’s meeting.
âI came here just to make sure the process is being considered and not rushed or done in an irresponsible manner,â Gaschler said. “Clean water is everything, and the possible pollution would really be an eyesore.”
His comment was one of 38 left that night. The vast majority of returns have come digitally. State officials have received approximately 7,000 emails regarding its decision to issue a draft license for a Class I underground injection control well that would store the remaining sewage from Piney Point. Now their job is to sift through those public comments and make a final decision.
The Department of Environmental Protection has amended or even denied permits in part based on concerns raised in public comments, according to the Department’s Southwest District Public Information Officer Shannon Herbon.
But it’s not the tenor of public opinion, whether it leans in a yes or a no, that makes the difference, said John Coates, program manager at the Department of Environmental Protection. This is the substance of the claims. If public comments may point out that the ministry’s decision is inconsistent with existing regulations and laws, that has more influence.
âThe basic thing that is helpful is that a lot of members of the public take the time to research the file and provide very valuable input, whether they are for or against a particular project,â Coates said. “These are the ones someone can work with and these inform the decision making process.”
The Department of Environmental Protection is not required to take action by a specific date, according to Herbon, but all signs point to the agency taking action soon. Ministry officials offered a variety of vague assessments of when a decision might be made, ranging from “a few” to “several” weeks.
Suncoast Waterkeeper founder Justin Bloom, one of the advocates for greater involvement of environmentalists at Piney Point, argued that the meeting’s format stifled public comment.
âI didn’t think it was very well designed for the purpose of soliciting feedback,â he said. “From an audience perspective, it limits engagement rather than eliciting engagement.”
In late September, Suncoast Waterkeeper was one of five groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, to send a notice of intent to sue Manatee County for its decision to inject “toxic pollutants from the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack in the Lower Florida Aquifer, âaccording to a press release.
âIt gives them a warning and hopefully gives them the opportunity to look at the potential liability and their legal situation and our position,â Bloom said. “We wouldn’t take this legal action until they actually start construction or start injecting.”
What environmentalists dispute is not just the method of injection into the deep wells, but what is being injected.
Manatee County’s application for the injection well classifies the remaining water at Piney Point as non-hazardous, meaning it does not need to be treated for pollutants before being injected into the well .
“The pretreatment strategy is not to reduce the constituents to a regulatory standard, as the water has been characterized as non-hazardous and is acceptable for Class I injection,” reads the Manatee County application. . “Rather, the treatment will be to ensure chemical compatibility with the injection area to avoid or limit the potential for formation plugging to the extent possible.”
Attached to the request, samples taken at Piney Point show some pollutants in the water, including heavy metals and radioactive material, but at levels not considered hazardous. Bloom wonders if this data represents all of the wastewater at the site.
âI think they’re dismissive,â Bloom said. âUnless they know a lot more than the public or the environmental groups voicing their concerns here, I don’t think they make these decisions with sufficient consideration. “
And if there is information that definitely proves that the pollutants in all of the sewage currently at Piney Point are at non-hazardous levels, Manatee County should be transparent with that data, according to Bloom.
When more than 200 million gallons of sewage poured into Tampa Bay, national attention turned to Manatee County. When a severe red tide erupted along the Gulf Coast this summer, environmentalists – and many members of the public – reported the disaster at Piney Point.
But now, over six months later, Bloom sees the event fading from public view. Fewer than 75 people registered for the public meeting of the Department of Environmental Protection. A meeting in April could have attracted hundreds.
âThere is always a crisis at Piney Point,â Bloom said. âThese batteries fail whether they fail this year or next year or the year after. I think everyone agrees that this is a very urgent matter.