▶ Watch Video: Activists fear environmental impact after toxic wastewater dumped in Tampa Bay

In April, more than 200 million gallons of untreated wastewater were discharged into local waters because of a leak at Piney Point, a former phosphate mining facility in Manatee County, Florida. Now, it’s a race against time for state officials to prevent another potentially “catastrophic” breach, with rainy season just months away and millions of gallons of untreated wastewater remaining at the facility. 

Piney Point is in a “very fragile state,” Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes told WUSF Public Media in October.

The facility is making fertilizer out of phosphate rock. A liner separates the water from the gypsum stacks to prevent it from leaking into surrounding areas, carrying with it high levels of nutrients and other materials potentially toxic to the environment. When the reservoir leaked in March and April, officials feared a “20-foot wall of water” would fall within minutes.

Officials have managed to stop the leaking since, but Hopes says it was just a “temporary fix,” and fears without a more permanent solution, the community could see the same situation soon. 

On November 24, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced it intendedi to issue a permit to construct a non-hazardous injection well to hold the remaining water at Piney Point. These kinds of injection wells, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, are used to inject wastes into “deep, confined rock formations” and are typically drilled “thousands of feet below the lowermost underground source of drinking water.”  

The well, according to permit documents, would be constructed 1,950 feet below the surface and have a total depth of 3,300 feet. 

As of December 2, the state reported there are roughly 252 million gallons of water being held in the facility’s reservoir that need to be removed. More than 4 million gallons of Piney Point wastewater could be pumped into the well daily, the permit says. 

The state is also looking to construct a dual-zone monitoring well to collect groundwater data. This well, according to the permit, would be built in two parts in the Upper Floridian Aquifer, with one component 600 to 650 feet below land surface, and the other 900 to 950 feet. 

But many local environmental groups are concerned about the safety of the solution. 

“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”  

Glen Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, said the pollution stemming from Piney Point is one of the reasons the organization was created. His organization has been closely monitoring Piney Point since 1968, two years after operations began at the facility.

“One thing we’ve learned is that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and has gone wrong. And I think the deep well injection is probably going to go down that same path,” Compton told CBS News. “All wells are subject to failure. … It might look good on paper, what they’re proposing, but in reality, we don’t know what happens under the ground.” 

This plan for Piney Point, according to Compton, will be the first time phosphogypsum wastewater has ever been injected underground in Florida. He fears it will set a dangerous precedent for other sites with phosphogypsum stacks. The application for the well says waste from other industries could be injected in the well if the water quality “is acceptable” and there’s enough space.

“Quite frankly, I think that’s going to be disastrous,” he said. “The reason this has been injected as opposed to surface water discharge is because it’s too dirty to discharge into the surface. So what we’re going to find out is that the worst water quality is going to be injected deep into the ground.” 

Justin Bloom, founder of local non-profit Suncoast Waterkeeper, told CBS News his issue is not necessarily with deep water injection, but rather officials’ history of not being transparent about the water’s contents and the facility’s safety. 

“We want to see meaningful, robust, transparent investigations of the pollution at the site and proper characterization of the site so that a thorough cleanup and remediation plan can go forward,” he said. “There would be more comfort if we had a better understanding of the extent of the pollution and the plan to treat it.”  

Suncoast Waterkeeper and four other local environmental groups have said they plan to sue the Manatee County Board of Commissioners should the well be approved, citing the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. 

In the notice, the groups say what is “most concerning” is the permit application for the well doesn’t outline any provisions to thoroughly treat the water. 

The groups’ notice also says the water quality sampling information included with the permit application shows Piney Point contained “hazardous level of pollutants, including heavy metals and radioactive waste” when it was last sampled in 2019. 

The samples show the presence of arsenic, nickel, copper and zinc, among other metals.

“They’re not treating it to surface water discharge standards, which is what should be done,” Compton said. “And unfortunately, it’s, even though it’s being sold to the public as a quick solution, we’re looking at a 40- to 50-year time frame to actually close the stack. … As the stacks are emptied, rainwater is going to enter into and they’re going to have to treat and treat and deal with that water.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has said the wastewater is a mix of phosphogypsum process water, seawater, and dredged materials. This mixture, according to University of South Florida geochemistry professor and phosphorus researcher Matthew Pasek, creates a high salt content and makes the water acidic. He also said it contains “some amount” of radioactive elements and probably heavy metals. 

This mixture is not fatal, he said, but will definitely “make you feel uncomfortable.” 

“You wouldn’t want to drink it, probably couldn’t do much with it still, as far as you know, watering crops or anything like that. It’s probably still too toxic to kind of be permissive to plant growth, or definitely wouldn’t want to swim in it, but it’s definitely better [than what it was in March and April].” 

Over the summer, excessive levels of nutrients in the water were linked to algal blooms and red tide along Florida’s Gulf Coast. The state has said it has treated the water to “significantly reduce” levels of total phosphorus and total nitrogen — which are major environmental concerns if the wastewater ends up in local waterways — but has not indicated any treatment for metals in the water. 

Pasek said it’s unlikely that once underground, the wastewater would seep its way into the upper level of Florida’s aquifer where drinking water resides. What could happen, however, is the well pipe breaks or fractures. This possibility is what has Compton and many others concerned. 

“If there is a failure of the well, by the time we figure it out, the damage will have already been done,” Compton said. “These are underground pipes, and you may have monitoring wells adjacent to them within the vicinity, but it’s very easy to miss a leak or a plume of toxicity that can move away from the well.”

Along with Piney Point’s own long history of structural issues — the massive breach earlier this year and a similar one in 2011 — structural incidents are not uncommon in deep water injection sites. 

A 2012 investigation by ProPublica found that structural failures within injection wells have been a common problem. From late 2007 to late 2010, the outlet found that one in six deep injection wells had an integrity violation — a ratio amounting to more than 17,000 violations in three years nationwide. More than 7,000 of those wells had signs their walls were leaking, ProPublica found. 

“I have zero confidence that there will be no problems”  

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is among a handful of officials who have spoken out against the injection well plans. In October, she said the approval of the well permit for Manatee County “defies all logic,” saying it risks further environmental contamination and potential contamination of the water supply. 

“With all of the new science and technology out there, this is not the right approach,” she told CBS News. “We have no science, we have no research that this isn’t going to leak into our aquifers, isn’t going to damage any of the other water sources. And once the water is down there, it’s near to impossible to pull back out.” 

When asked how confident she was there will be no issues with deep injection, either during construction or thereafter, Fried laughed. 

“I have zero confidence that there will be no problems,” she told CBS News. 

Deep well injection has been proposed to tackle the Piney Point situation several times over the years. When HRK Holdings, the company that owned Piney Point at the time of the leak but has since gone bankrupt, suggested the well in 2015, they received significant backlash from the community and the plan was quickly put to rest. HRK again suggested deep well injection in 2019.

Fried and others have suggested the state use reverse osmosis to treat the water. 

Reverse osmosis, Pasek explained, would essentially clean any unwanted material from the water. But the process is expensive and gets “gunked up” frequently, he said. It could also take a long time to complete, especially when rain hits the wastewater ponds. And time, according the state, is an important factor in removing the wastewater. 

With the next hurricane season less than a year away, Pasek told CBS News that given the options on the table, the deep water injection well may be the best solution — but only if done properly. 

“[Piney Point] leaked before in 2009 and again in 2011,” Pasek said. “So it’s just been a problem, man — no one wants to fix it because it’s expensive.”

A statewide problem that’s a “ticking time bomb” 

Florida is home to numerous current and former phosphate mining facilities. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, there are 27 phosphate mines in Florida, covering more than 450,000 acres. Nine of those sites remain active.

And Piney Point is not the only facility that has structural issues.

On October 2, a pipeline broke at an active phosphate mine in Hillsborough County owned by The Mosaic Company, according to WUSF Public Media. Roughly 6 million gallons of turned water leaked out of the pipeline, which was used to transfer sand to reclamation areas within the mine. Some of that water ended up in a nearby creek.

In Polk County, about 40 miles east from Piney Point, lies the New Wales Gypsum Stack, which Fried said has a “well-documented record of prior environmental catastrophe dating back at least four decades.” In 2016, a massive sinkhole broke through at the gypsum stack, resulting in 215 million gallons of radioactive wastewater being released.

Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC requested to expand the stack by 230 acres in October, the same month that seismic activity was detected in an area of the stack. Fried has since asked the EPA to stop Mosaic from expanding the site, citing conditions that “may adversely affect the stack’s integrity.”

“Given this gypstack’s history of environmental violations – and given the recent breach of the Piney Point gypstack that spilled a quarter-billion gallons of toxic process water into Tampa Bay, likely causing a severe harmful algal bloom in the region,” Fried wrote in her letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, “there is no confidence that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection can effectively regulate or mitigate the environmental effects of phosphogypsum stacks.”

Fried has said the issues at these facilities display a “pattern of neglect,” and that the remaining gypsum stacks in Florida are “ticking time bombs.”

“What other industry is allowed to continue causing environmental damage with no real consequences while our communities suffer?” she tweeted in October. “This is exactly why I’ve been speaking out to make it clear that I unequivocally oppose permitting new phosphogypsum stacks, expansions of existing facilities, and deep well injections of contaminated wastewater into the Florida aquifer.”