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THE MONSTER ABOVE

July 29, 2007

Author's Note: This article appeared in Weekly Planet/Creative Loafing.

 

The Monster Above

On the night of December 24, 2002, Christmas Eve, Sam Zamani from
Florida's Department of Environmental Protection was not home with his
family. He was not warm and toasty but on the side of the hill holding
millions of gallons of dangerous waters threatening Tampa Bay from Piney
Point.

In hopes of closing down one of two lakes containing the deadly waters
atop an artificial hill between Tampa and Bradenton, some water had been
drawn high into one lake and low into the other through pipes.

Now it was raining, inches and inches, and water was creeping-up,
straining capacity of the filled lake's walls. Tampa Bay, above which
Piney Point sits, was in danger of receiving potentially the most
catastrophic phosphate accident in the history of the industry.

Where was I on the night of December 31, 2002? We were on our way to
dinner when a great storm erupted and power went out. I had to use a
flashlight to get out of my house.

Sam Zamani was not reveling at any party or on his way to dinner. He
was back on top of the artificial mountain filled with deadly waters. He
was conferencing with engineers and with a superior in DEP in
Tallahassee. Water was blowing over the sides of the filled lake's
walls. The rain was falling again, a torrent.

It was decided that unless the water was quickly drained there was
danger of a breach loosing the devastating waters on Tampa Bay. On that
New Year's Eve, while you and I were dining or toasting or dancing, we
were completely unaware that Tampa Bay's life was in jeopardy and might
well have been saved. A reluctant decision let the waters return into
the emptied lake.

Sam and DEP inherited this problem when Mulberry Corporation, the
parent of Piney Point Phosphates, went bankrupt and ceased operations in
2001. That Sam is stuck with the problem is ironic because Sam
recommended to his superiors in DEP as early as 1991 that Piney Point's
facility be closed.

Even on New Year's Day, while I was sleeping late and dreaming of
spiked eggnog like my father used to make when we watched the Rose Bowl,
Sam Zamani was on site.

In my times, I have shared frustration with DEP during the current
administration with fellow environmentalists. We have called it
"Department of Easy Permits". We have said the letters stand for "Don't
Expect Protection." I spared with DEP over incinerators alongside the
Ichetucknee River, thinking we'd won the "Battle on the Ichetucknee,"
until I woke one day to find that while I had been fighting fair and
square with gloves on, they had hit me over the head with a chair and
reversed their decision. I begged with some success for help on maps for
books, and tried unsuccessfully to get DEP to buy land for preservation.
My underpaid friends in the state park service were reorganized into
DEP, then down-sized. I have, at times, sputtered and fumed at DEP
personnel over issues, until they must have thought I had rabies.
For some of these things, I feel like personally apologizing to Sam
Zamani. I don't know Sam well, but I respect him. We are lucky to have
people on the ramparts trying to protect us to the best they can. It is
too bad they have to be in such a position in the first place.

If there had been a spill, millions of fishes, birds and tiny organisms
would have died on contact. The waters going into the bay could have
turned surrounding waters for some distance pea green from algae blooms.
The algae would have blocked sunlight to the seagrasses. Those grasses
would have died.

"Could a spill from Piney Point under the right conditions be the straw
that broke Tampa Bay's back?" I asked Charles Kovach from DEP. He and
his staff are responsible for testing the health of  Bishop Harbor where
the waters would go first before entering Tampa Bay.  A thoughtful look
crossed Charles' face, and he did not answer. "We don't know," is what I
think he would say, and it sure couldn't help.

    Our Tampa Bay

  Up to 1.2-billion gallons of waste waters from fertilizer manufacture
have sat in the two lakes and two associated ponds.  Those lakes were
built at the plant over a number of years by various owners.
Since New Year's Eve, the threat of such a catastrophic accident may
have diminished some, but it is still not gone, according to DEP.

What is Tampa Bay? The heart of our community. Around it, 2-million
Floridians live, play, love, suffer, laugh and die. It is not the Tampa
Bucs, but the Tampa Bay Bucs. Why? Because those living here consider
themselves part of a larger community, and the center of it is the bay.
Some humans sit on blankets along bay shores watching the sunset with
wine and cheese. Our finest restaurants overlook it, places you take
your significant other on Valentine's Day for the views are considered
romantic. Couples with lesser budgets spoon beside it on blankets.
Encased in metal, plastic and glass, the motor-driven speed across its
causeway and bridges in hectic daily activities, and perhaps blithely
take the bay for granted. Exuberant beach revelers race over it on
jet-skis. Fishermen cast into it from bridges, docks and boats. By The
Pier in St. Petersburg, colorful regattas put forth.

Less noticed are the creatures who live in and around the bay. Birds in
rookeries. Porpoises in pods. Schools of fish. All the tiny thriving
organisms in a ecosystem. Even sharks and manatees.

Joggers, bicyclists and power walkers move along the sides of the
Courtney Campbell or Friendship Trail on the old Gandy Bridge.
Kayakers and canoeists pass through mangrove tunnels in Tampa Bay's
aquatic preserves, like Bishop Harbor.

Bishop Harbor is connected to the artificial hill with the deadly
waters by a series of canals. The harbor itself is a small estuary of
Tampa Bay.

I first paddled Bishop Harbor in 2002 exploring Manatee County's
Blueway, or paddling trail.

Most impressive in the clear waters were prolific stingrays, one of
which swam over to look up at me with human-like curiosity. Luminous
blue eyes from an alien creature stared into the atmosphere at the
monster above, a man.

I got out of the canoe and walked left on the mangrove fringe. The ray
swam in my direction. When I walked right, the ray swam  following me.
We both stared at each other, me looking down, it looking up. I walked
back and forth until I was tired of it, but the ray never got bored.
People are fickle. Wild animals are not, even a fish with a stinger.
Red and black mangroves cling to oyster beds in Bishop Harbor. Little
green herons hide in the salt-tolerant trees. In the harbor's northwest
corner, in an area called Hells Half-Acre, were six roseate spoonbills
and ducks. Great blue herons, white egrets, ibis and other birds were
obvious.

On my last trip, I was startled by rapidly swimming redfish - a few
shot by like small torpedoes. The harbor surface boiled with redfish,
snook and stingrays, and mullet made their usual long and spectacular
series of leaps.

Out of the mouth of Bishop Harbor lie extensive seagrasses, essential
to keeping Tampa Bay healthy. Turn right toward Cockroach Bay, left
toward Terra Ceia, other aquatic preserves. These are some of the most
precious areas remaining in Tampa Bay.

    The State of the Bay

Once all Tampa Bay was rich with fishes like Bishop Harbor, with
grasses prolific like Terra Ceia. Now it is not.

When I was a squirt, my friends and I, armed with fishing poles and the
thoughtlessness of the period, could catch a hundred fish in a few
hours. When I had a stepson in my first marriage, I took him fishing in
the same spots about 15 years ago.

Not a bite. What had happened? The monster in the sky had diminished
greatly the largest open water estuary in Florida. Our bay is a whopper,
almost 400 square miles, and we couldn't catch one fish in it.

In thoughtless days, rich mangrove estuaries were cleared for  homes.
Vast mangrove forests were wiped-out for docks and marinas for boats and
unimpeded bay views for homeowners. "Fingers" of land were dredged for
water view homes, destroying habitat and altering flows. Canals were dug
which brought silt.

Seawalls rim portions of the bay. Once I witnessed hordes of horseshoe
crabs arriving to lay eggs and finding instead seawall.

Boaters have dribbled gasoline and oil, their props have scarred
seagrass beds, their mindless acts littered the bottom with beer cans,
soda bottles and sometimes the kitchen sink. There are more than 100,000
pleasure boats in the area, hopefully most operated responsibly,
although it is hard to tell sometimes. Oil tankers spilled much larger
slicks into Tampa Bay in more dramatic fashion.

For decades too much sewage seeped in causing algae to bloom, shading
the seagrasses to death. Storm water runoff carried soil, pesticides and
fertilizers, and industrial operations contributed their own goo. Stuff
going up from incinerators came down with rains.

Scallops, which filter sea water, were once so plentiful people got
their dinner sifting through handfuls of seagrasses. Try to find a
scallop in most of Tampa Bay now. For most of the bay, a scallop is now
a rare treasure.

The Courtney Campbell Causeway severed the upper bay from normal flows,
while shipping channels were gouged into the bottom. Just to maintain
Tampa Bay's shipping channels requires yanking up 1-million cubic yards
of bay bottom annually. How much is that? Fills 100,000 dump trucks.
Tampa Bay has lost over 80% of the seagrasses it was estimated to have
had a century ago. Mangrove estuary has dipped by about 50% of historic
levels.

So why do we care about Piney Point? The bay is a wasteland, right? Not
really. Although we can still wreck it completely, Tampa Bay is a
survivor, a testament to the power of nature. There have also been
improvements in the health of Tampa Bay of late which it would be a
shame to lose.

Dick Eckenrod of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program pointed these
improvements out. Dick's office acts as a clearing house and coordinator
for the cities and counties around Tampa Bay and a number of agencies
involved in bringing back the bay's health. The goal has focused mostly
on improving the water quality in Tampa Bay so seagrasses could expand.
Over a period of about twelve years, 4,000 acres of seagrass have made
a comeback, a commendable success. Shoreline habitat has been restored -
1,500 acres of it. Seagrasses are being planted in mitigation around
Port Manatee near Bishop Harbor because of improvements to shipping
lanes. There are other successes, including an increase in fish
populations.

Given enough time and care, Tampa Bay might recover more - if we don't
harm it further.

    Drastic Business

What to do with the acidic process water at Piney Point which threatens
Tampa Bay?

It might be useful to realize how the water got there. The artificial
lakes were made over years when mined phosphate rock was brought to
Piney Point when it made fertilizer. The rock was turned into "we feed
the world" stuff in a process involving sulfuric acid and other nasty
chemicals.

A byproduct of making fertilizer is phosphogypsum. This is what the
walls of the artificial hill holding the lakes at Piney Point is made
from. The gyp was pumped there because there is no use for it.
Once gyp was sold for road building, but EPA banned it because it has
radioactive radium and emits radon gas. So gyp is just stacked nearby
wherever fertilizer is made in Florida. In Central Florida, there are
around 20 stacks, some with one lake, others with two.

In an active gyp stack, process water evaporates about as fast as rain
falls. Piney Point is not an active stack. Site engineers estimate one
inch of rain puts 12.6-million gallons of water back into the lakes.
Thus, you not only have to remove the nasty waters left over from
making fertilizer. You also have to get rid of the waters which rain
into it.

How much water did DEP need to get rid of to prevent an accidental
spill of tremendous harm to Tampa Bay?

DEP asked permission of EPA's Regional Office in Atlanta to dump
treated water into the Gulf of Mexico to avoid a catastrophic spill. DEP
stated "failure to transfer 484-million gallons of water off site as
quickly as possible will result in imminent risk to human health and
safety." In the permit request, DEP estimated "the risk for a potential
spill is high." Four scenarios for dike breaches were discussed with a
spill "in excess of 100-million gallons" in "an anticipated 100-foot
wide, 5 to 7-foot deep dike breach."

Treated waters aimed for the Gulf are piped to Port Manatee and aboard
the barge The New York. A tug takes the barge over 100 miles to sea
where water is dribbled into the Gulf, several million gallons each
trip.

DEP has employed another controversial option to protect Tampa Bay, as
well as less visible ones. Water is treated then released directly into
Bishop Harbor thus into Tampa Bay.

These waters carry extra nitrogen in the form of ammonia, a compound
kind of like tear gas. Nitrogen causes things to grow. Unfortunately, it
doesn't make the right things grow at sea or in Tampa Bay.

We are adding harmful fertilizer into the Gulf by barge and into Tampa
Bay through Bishop Harbor. Whether there will be unforeseen consequences
cannot be foretold.

The EPA permit has a limited lifetime. DEP recently said they want to
get two barges and extend the permit.

Defenders of treating and releasing the water into the Gulf point out
that it is just a little bit. It is nothing like what comes in from the
Mississippi River.

It is still something that wasn't there before.

Glenn Compton of Manasota-88 thinks incineration is the answer. Spray
drying is the most common form of incinceration, in which water is
sprayed into the top of an incinerator and pebbles of wastes end-up at
the bottom, while the water becomes vapor from the heat. It was one of a
number of alternatives DEP considered and rejected.

If incineration is needed, DEP has yet to order the equipment,
which would they declined to do in part because they said it would take
l8 months to be operational. Not so, say industry sources, who say used
equipment could be purchase and on site in 6 months.

In hindsight, maybe an incinerating system should have
been acquired, because incineration may be needed eventually as the
stack is drawn down and the pollutants in the lakes intensify. When
strengthened, the waters could not be treated by present methods.
More money should have been allocated sooner by the legislature, Glenn
thinks. The entire operation does cost money.

It is estimated by DEP that it will cost well over 100-million dollars
to close down the menace at Piney Point. A sister plant of Mulberry
Corporation also costs state money to close. The total bill for Mulberry
going out of business may be 160-million dollars or more.

This money is coming from the tax on each ton of phosphate "severed"
from the earth. Unfortunately, that money was meant for better things,
including land reclamation and conservation.

As for Bishop Harbor, cross your fingers.

The releases into Bishop Harbor have in the past stopped and started.
No one wants them. DEP has defended them as necessary to drain the stack
in time. They may stop and start again.

Charles Kovach and his staff test sea waters for DEP both in Bishop
Harbor and in the Gulf. Thus far, there has been no noticeable long-term
effects, he says, from releases to drain the stack.

Once there was a "mahogany" tide, as opposed to a red tide, in Bishop
Harbor. But it is gone now.

In testing, among other activities, dives are made to selected test
grids of seagrasses in Bishop Harbor where Charles measures things like
the number of leaves on turtle grass and leaf length for growth rate.
Water is also sampled by independent environmental consultants and
Manatee County.

At present levels, 55 pounds of ammonia go into Tampa Bay every day.
Multiple this by the length of Noah's Flood and you are dealing in tons.
Enough ammonia could cause blooming algae shading-out seagrasses.
This cannot be harmless, and although an algae bloom might not happen,
the long-term results may be difficult to foretell.

     The Future

 Long term consequences of phosphate mining and fertilizer production
are widespread and far flung. Somewhat like a meteorite smacking into
the ocean, ripples go everywhere, although daily mining and fertilizer
manufacturer are much less dramatic.

Unlike Hollywood, there is no gang of roughneck miners, including a
gritty father and handsome beau of the father's daughter, being shot
into space with drills and determination to save us from the monster
above. We, like Pogo in the famous cartoon, have met the enemy, and he
is us.

No lovely woman watches over TV while her father sacrifices his life
for the planet. This is more like reality TV, but much less
sophmorically amusing, and infinitely more difficult to deal with.
Unlike reality TV, you have to think to deal with this problem. The
sacrifices you would have to make would be in time and effort.
Thus let's digress through a labyrinth of reality for those who are
leaving Joe Schmo behind and wish to consider phosphate, fertilizer and
Tampa Bay.

Some have said DEP should have acted faster to close Piney Point.
Possibly. Regulation of the phosphate industry has some built-in
Catch-22s to make even Joseph Heller proud, though.

Right now, if DEP pulls a company's mining permit because it is failing
financially, we the taxpayers end-up owning gyp stacks and mining
companies. Lucky us. At the present time, to make matters worse, there
is no real provision for the company involved to pay the cost of closing
the stack if the company goes broke.

One could sue them, but what if they are going broke? What can you get
from a company gone bust? If Mulberry Corporation is any example, not
enough.

Let's have DEP levy fines against bankrupt companies. Go get them DEP.
Only problem, what if they can't pay? What good are fines against a
failing business except to push them further into failure?
On the other hand, you can't just seize an operating business while it
has assets that could pay for closing it down. The business might make
an economic turnaround. People will lose their jobs if a wrong decision
is made.

There is no guarantee against business failure, in the phosphate
industry or elsewhere. In the early days of the phosphate frontier,
perhaps 200 companies mined. Now there are four. Only two of those were
in business in Florida when the phosphate industry was first regulated
in the early 1970s. Back then Earth Day was a new concept.
DEP has proposed new guidelines for financial responsibility for stack
operation which they hope will address who will pay for potential
problems in the future. The point of these proposed new rules is to make
sure there is enough money to pay for closing down stacks if the state
has to take them over, not to prevent bankruptcy or defend Tampa Bay.
These new proposals require the fertilizer companies to determine the
cost of closing down a stack. Then every year for 20 years they have to
put 5% of the costs into a form of tangible collateral, such as
insurance or bonds. It's a little more complicated than that, but that's
the heart of the proposal.

Where does this leave Tampa Bay? Vulnerable.

Fertilizer is manufactured at several sites along the Alafia River and
at a plant which would spill into the Hillsborough River if there were
an accident. There is another phosphogypsum stack on the lip of Tampa
Bay in addition to Piney Point.

Those are all operational plants. The companies seem financially sound.
Can we safely assume those plants will never hurt Tampa Bay? Or the
business will go on forever? No.

You remember that day after you had a fight with your significant
other? Or the day you learned someone dear to you was dying? Or the day
it was almost five, you were coming down with the flu, and all you
wanted was to get home fast to a cold beer and hot shower? Maybe you
never had a day like that, but I have. You become distracted driving
your vehicle, ending-up with your bumper placed in the back of a truck
driven by a fellow twice your size who doesn't look happy.
Human error, that's all it takes, for an accident. You didn't want the
accident. You were having a bad day.

All the existing mining and processing companies may have the best
personnel, highly trained and motivated, and stacks designed by the
finest engineers of the highest standards. I don't know if that is true
or false, but we must leave it to the DEP inspectors and engineers who
inspect stacks on a regular basis.

The odds of an accident at a stack may be small. Whatever you do,
however, you cannot rule out human error and potential accidents,
Further, phosphate mining and fertilizer processing take place on
colossal scales, thus truly bad accidents involve millions of gallons of
potentially harmful waters.

Unfortunately, Piney Point is now in the ER. The patient is Tampa Bay.
It is an emergency situation, the operation is in progress. You and I
can ask the legislature to make sure DEP has enough money to do the
operation fast and efficiently. We can also ask the doctor to operate
faster. We can ask for all care to be taken for the patient, Tampa Bay.
We can ask for alternative treatments to be considered. We can gather
outside the operating door, hold hands, and conduct a prayer vigil.

We need to look beyond Piney Point into the future.

    Protecting Tampa Bay

There are many issues with the bay besides fertilizer plant spills. The
potential debacle at Piney Point has pushed the overall phosphate risk
to the foreground. Dumping treated waters into the Gulf and Bishop
Harbor has kept it on citizen's radar screens.

Logically the first step toward protecting Tampa Bay is to vigorously
bring it back to robust health to the greatest degree possible. This
would allow it an opportunity to survive the inevitable accidents it
will receive from various industries. The value of such an effort is
priceless, but has positive economic consequences for fishing and
tourism.

We should ask that all the agency programs involved in improving Tampa
Bay's health be put in high gear. Unfortunately, right now most agencies
are experiencing funding shortages.

Citizens can become involved through education with the Tampa Bay
Estuary Program. They can also sign-up do volunteer work.

While it would seem a fair question whether, given the state of Tampa
Bay, we should allow potentially harmful industrial operations to
continue, there is no mechanism to vote yes or no. In fact, when it gets
down to mining, even state legislators don't get to vote all the time.
Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties do not have a strong enough
voice in mining and fertilizer production because these operations occur
upstream, often in other counties. Mining is permitted by a vote of the
county commission where it occurs, despite system wide effects in other
counties.

There are a bunch of state agencies involved in the permitting, and
regional councils. On the regional councils there is a small chance
someone you voted for has a say.

Mines are permitted in far-off counties largely without bay residents'
consent even though Tampa Bay is downstream. Charlotte County has for
years held the pesky opinion that they have a right to be involved in
phosphate permitting on lands on other counties in the Peace River
Drainage which empties into Charlotte Harbor. Their activities have
delayed and perhaps stopped new mining. Nearly everyone in the
permitting process, at one time or the other, thought they didn't belong
in it. Sure, they belong in it.

So should Pinellas, Manatee and Hillsborough counties.

A large estuary like Tampa Bay involves multiple counties and multiple
rivers. The freshwater rivers, down which spills might flow, are
essential for a healthy estuary in our bay. The overall ecosystem needs
protection, and the system is the Tampa Bay Drainage, which includes all
of us, not just counties upriver where mining takes place.


Web Sites

Florida Department of Environmental Protection
www.dep.state.fl.us

Florida Institute of  Phosphate Research
www.fipr.state.fl.us

Florida Public Interest Research Group
www.floridapirg.org

Hardee County Citizens Against Pollution
www.geocities.com/hardcap2003/index.html

ManaSota-88
www.manasota-88.org

The Phosphate Risk
www.thephosphaterisk.com

Tampa Bay Estuary Program
www.tpep.org

Tampa Bay Watch
www.tampabaywatch.org

 

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