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Less damaging phosphate waste removal sought

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
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published January 11, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- State environmental officials met Thursday with scientists and local authorities to search for a way to avoid pumping millions of gallons of waste from a defunct Manatee County phosphate plant into an aquatic preserve at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

"If we can find an alternative that results in us not discharging into the bay, we'll go with that," promised Joe Bakker, chief of the Department of Environmental Protection's mine reclamation bureau.

Starting in November, the DEP let the Piney Point Phosphates plant pump 10-million gallons of water with elevated levels of acid and nitrogen into Bishop Harbor, just north of the Skyway bridge.

DEP officials said they had little choice but to allow the bankrupt plant to discharge the treated water after Tropical Storm Gabrielle caused so much flooding that they feared an accidental spill of highly acidic, untreated water. Such a spill could have killed thousands of fish and caused environmental damage to the bay.

The discharges ended Dec. 19 when local officials raised concerns about the impact on water quality in the bay and in the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve.

Although nearly a month has passed since the discharges ceased, "it's still pretty turbid out there," said Rob Brown, Manatee County's water quality administrator. The cloudiness, produced when the waste boosted nitrogen levels, may cut off enough sunlight to affect seagrass growth.

Further discharges may feed the lingering outbreak of Red Tide that has been floating on the outskirts of Tampa Bay for months, warned University of South Florida oceanographer Gabe Vargo.

Still, the plant must get rid of another 27-million gallons by June 1, before Florida's rainy summer, said Suzanne Cooper of the Agency on Bay Management. Then the plant must flush out another 170-million gallons by Sept. 1, she said.

"We've got to get moving," Cooper said.

Among the options that DEP officials and the task force discussed were shipping the Piney Point waste to Cargill's Riverview phosphate plant or CF Industries' Plant City phosphate plant; piping the waste to Manatee's sewage treatment plant; barging the waste out into the Gulf of Mexico for disposal; or pumping it to a nearby farm to fertilize crops.

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