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    Dumping plan alarms spongers

    An already ailing industry fears a plan to dump a phosphate plant's wastewater in the gulf would snuff out the last of the sponges.

    By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Ask any of the old timers sunning at the Sponge Docks, and they'll tell you they've been listening to the sponge industry's death rattle for nearly a decade.

    First came the foreign competition that heated up price wars and lowered wages for local divers.

    Next came the labor shortages that led to a drop in local sponge production.

    Now some commercial Tarpon Springs sponge fishers worry that the state's plan to dump 500-million gallons of wastewater from the Port Manatee-based Piney Point phosphate plant into the Gulf of Mexico will be the final nail in the industry's coffin.

    "It would essentially wipe out our industry," said Sponge Associates of Florida president Jeff Love.

    Love's Tarpon Springs-based trade group is concerned that the state Department of Environmental Protection's plan to spray the treated wastewater from barges into waters as close as 50 miles from St. Pete Beach could hurt their livelihood. Though sponge fishers generally harvest their sponges within about 10 to 20 miles of shore, they worry that the wastewater could lead to an imbalance in the sponge's ecosystem or cause Red Tide or other algal blooms to grow and kill off nearby sponge beds.

    "Sponges are very sensitive to pollutants and changes in salinity," Love said. "Our sponges out there are just now coming back and now comes this proposal to dump 40 to 50 miles offshore. It's pretty astonishing."

    The DEP came up with the unusual emergency disposal plan after it became apparent that Piney Point's reservoir of tainted water, which is stored in an earthen mound, is in danger of spilling into Tampa Bay. Heavy rains in recent years have left about 10 inches of storage space for the water, said DEP spokeswoman Deena Wells. State regulators are concerned that more rains could push storage limits and send the waste rushing into Bishop Harbor at the mouth of the bay, just south of Hillsborough County.

    The state plans to dispose of the polluted water over an area in the gulf measuring about 19,500 square miles. The wastewater will be dumped into the gulf in an area where water reaches a depth of 40 meters, or about 130 feet, Wells said. Scheduled to start this summer and end in November, the disposal will disperse enough wastewater to fill more than 700 Olympic-size swimming pools.

    The state's disposal plan is especially troubling to Professor Bill Falls. Falls is manager of Hillsborough Community College's aquaculture program in Brandon. He has spent several years studying live rock cultures that are home to 126 different species of sea life, including sponge and coral. He hopes to launch a long-term study of Tarpon Springs unique sponge life next year. Water polluted with phosphorus or nitrogen could threaten the vitality of Tarpon Springs' sponge culture, he said.

    "I would be a little leery of dumping it 40 miles from our shoreline," Falls said. "That's a bit close."

    Depending on the current, trace elements of phosphorus in the wastewater might act as a fertilizer, causing Red Tide to bloom near areas where sponges grow.

    Despite those concerns and objections raised by environmentalists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the state's disposal plan during a closed-door meeting with state officials in Tampa on April 2. State and federal officials said the situation at Piney Point was so dire they were left with little choice but to dispose of the water in the gulf.

    The state inherited the problem after Mulberry Phosphate declared bankruptcy two years ago, giving DEP just two days notice before abandoning its two huge facilities -- one at Piney Point and one in Mulberry. Since then, the state has been paying the bill for the cleanup, Wells said. DEP officials estimate disposal in the gulf will cost between $15-million and $37.5-million.

    Although Wells said DEP's plan is "to discharge in areas free of critical marine life," sponge experts have little doubt that the cost of the plan will be more than monetary and has the potential to damage the Gulf of Mexico's delicate ecosystem.

    "They're not really spraying; they are dumping," Love said. "It's ironic that the very agency that's charged with Florida environment is becoming its biggest polluter."

    Sponge experts are worried that gulf and bay currents could carry the polluted water back toward the shore and closer to areas where commercial sponge fishers ply their trade. Falls said phosphorus and other elements in the wastewater could create an acidic imbalance in waters where sponges could grow.

    Wells acknowledged that the wastewater does contain trace elements of nitrogen.

    Nitrogen and phosphorus are key elements in most fertilizers and have been known to cause outgrowths of Red Tide when introduced into the sea or ocean.

    "Even if (phosphorus elements) don't cause Red Tide, it could cause green algae, hair algae, slime algae," Falls said. "It's going to make algae grow. That can cause total oxygen depletion and that can cause sponge to die."

    Red Tide and other algae are a menace to sensitive hard bottom water creatures such as sponges and coral, Falls said. Algae acts much like a weed does in a garden, overgrowing sponges and gobbling up the oxygen in surrounding waters.

    It's happened before, said Florida Sea Grant extension agent John Stevely. Stevely has been studying sponges since the Florida Sea Grant, a university-based statewide marine research program, launched the Florida Key Sponge Survey in 1991. One a year after the survey began, a massive Red Tide bloom killed off sponges over a 600-square-mile area near the Florida Keys.

    "In some cases, in excess of 90 percent of sponges were killed," Stevely said. "It was quite a dramatic event."

    An algal bloom in the Tampa Bay area could devastate Tarpon Springs' sponge industry. Though commercial sponge species like the sheepswool sponge typically harvested near Tarpon Springs tend to be heartier, Stevely said, it could take more than a decade for sponge beds to recover from an algal bloom. Commercial sponge typically grows at a rate of one to two inches in diameter a year.

    "For commercial sponges they only tolerate a very narrow range of salinities," Stevely said. "As a sponge biologist, I have some concerns because sponge could be impacted."

    In 2000, fisherman reported harvesting 37,533 pieces of sheepswool sponge worth an estimated $122,441 from the Tampa Bay region, according to Florida Marine Research Institute figures. The harvest dropped in 2001 with 20,837 pieces with a value of $87,065 and then dropped again in 2002 with 11,819 pieces harvested with a rough value of $53,247, according to preliminary institute estimates. Sheepswool sponge is one of four species tracked by the institute.

    But the sponge harvest has an extra value, Love said. An estimated million tourists a year travel from all over the world to get a glimpse of Tarpon Springs' famous Sponge Docks. As in many Florida towns, tourist dollars are the life blood of the city.

    The disposal plan's potential impact on the bay area's environment and local tourism economy has some Pinellas County officials "scared to death," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who feared the worst when she learned of the state's disposal plan.

    Latvala doubts DEP assurances that the dumping plan will have a limited effect on the local marine environment. Latvala said the county does not have the authority to alter the state's plan, but she would seek help from the Legislature and Congress to block the dumping if it hurt the bay area's marine environment, beaches or tourism industry.

    "It would have an incredible impact on the west coast of Florida, and it's something we need to monitor," Latvala said.

    Florida Sponge Associate's Love said his group plans to do more than just monitor the situation. The group will decide on a plan of action at a meeting Wednesday. But Love said a tentative strategy could include asking state and federal politicians to pressure the EPA to reverse its decision. The group may go further than that.

    "If we had to, we would take it to court, Love said. "This is our livelihoods they're playing with."

    -- Staff writer Craig Pittman and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or rondeaux@sptimes.com.

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