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Release Date: 04/03/2003
Contact Information: Carl Terry, EPA Region 4, 404-562-8327
Acting upon the recommendations of a panel of eminent scientists consulted by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today began the process to allow the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to transport and disperse treated wastewater from the abandoned Piney Point phosphate fertilizer facility, in Manatee County, Florida, to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in areas free of critical marine habitat. This emergency decision is being made to prevent a catastrophic spill of hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated wastewater into Tampa Bay should heavy rains, predicted by the National Weather Service, cause the failure of the dikes at the facility. The potential failure poses an imminent health and safety threat to many area residents, including risking the lives of the workers on site and flooding Highway 41 - a major hurricane evacuation route for more than 300,000 people in South Florida.

EPA has initiated the consultation process with the International Maritime Organization as required under the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (The 1972 London Convention). Under the London Convention, in order for EPA to issue an emergency permit to dispose of the treated wastewater from Piney Point into the ocean, it must notify the IMO and consult with other countries likely to be affected by the action. It is anticipated that an emergency permit will be issued in the next several days.

The Piney Point facility was abandoned by its bankrupt owners in 2001. The State of Florida has spent the last two years seeking options for removal of the wastewater, and increased the onsite holding capacity to stabilize the containment system pending the implementation of other alternatives. Florida also was able to reduce the volume by removing 145 million gallons of wastewater from the site during 2002. Unfortunately, record rainfall during the latter half of 2002, including December's once-in-500-year rainfall accumulations, added 280 million gallons of new acidic wastewater. This has triggered an extreme emergency situation by weakening the dikes and threatening to exceed the capacity on site.

"After conducting an exhaustive review of alternatives, EPA has concluded that no feasible alternatives are immediately available to alleviate this emergency. There are dire risks to human life, health and the environment," said Region 4 Administrator Jimmy Palmer. "We agree with the panel of scientific experts, consulted by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, all of whom believe that dispersal of the treated wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico poses minimal ecological and health risks compared to either continuing the discharge of treated wastewater into Tampa Bay or, worse, suffering a large release of millions of gallons of untreated industrial wastewater into this nationally significant ecosystem. While alternatives are still being pursued, our first priority is to protect the safety of area residents."

The ecological results of such a disaster would be massive fish kills, loss of the Bay's essential seagrass beds, and harmful algal blooms, he said, adding that it could "take the Bay decades to recover."

The permit will require Florida to continue to pursue alternatives and use other solutions to the maximum extent feasible. The permit can be re-opened to reduce the quantity of wastewater to be discharged as feasible options become available. In addition to monitoring required by the State, EPA also intends to use its own ocean survey vessel, Peter W. Anderson, to monitor the discharge.