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Hurricane Ian may leave behind a trail of environmental hazards

A reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine in Bradenton, Fla. (Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald via AP)

The stacks of gypsum in a disposal site in Piney Point, Fla., with 20 to 30 foot walls containing 400 million gallons of phosphorus and nitrogen in open ponds, look like a natural site for a potential disaster as Hurricane Ian pummeled large parts of Florida. In April 2021, the plant pumped polluted water into Tampa Bay, which scientists said contributed to algae blooms.

But this year the lining of the waste pit held, the company says.

“We’ve taken into account additional storm water coming in,” said Herbert Donica, a lawyer and accountant who several months ago was asked by a bankruptcy court to step in and oversee the cleanup and closure of the site.

The fertilizer plant is just more than two dozen such sites in Florida, and while the repairs to Piney Point’s lining appear to have held, there is still a great deal unknown about the wreckage Hurricane Ian has left behind across the state.

Photos: Ian leaves a path of destruction

“We’re talking about an unprecedented level of solid waste and physical debris,” said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership. “An incredible extent of physical debris. There are thousands and thousands of boats and cars. Chemical debris, bacterial nutrients.”

Local governments and agencies will have to gather the wreckage and expand landfills to hold all of it, including asphalt roads. For example, the causeway connecting Sanibel Island with the mainland was severely damaged.

“The road leading to the bridge was significantly undermined. So what you get is vast fields of asphalt that have to be cleaned up,” said Eric Draper, former director of the Florida Park Service. “Having to deal with this is a real headache. It is very hard to clean up because the asphalt breaks up into pieces.”

Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that dealing with abandoned junk created a huge problem after Hurricane Katrina, and Ian would be no different. In Katrina’s case, New Orleans officials decided to burn much of the waste, in most cases disregarding regulations about asbestos in buildings, gasoline in automobile fuel tanks, plastic linings and other contaminants.

Olson testified to Congress after Katrina that the waste was enough to cover more than 1,000 football fields 50-feet-deep, dwarfing the debris from the World Trade Center attacks. It included 350,000 ruined vehicles.

“There was just a massive amount of waste, just huge amounts of material that had to be disposed of,” Olson said in a phone interview. “So they started open burning.” He added that a lot of existing landfills were “pretty much full and didn’t have room for material.” The same could be true in Florida.

Hecker said that the Peace River runs up the center of Florida, through a 1.3 million acre area known as “Bone Valley,” where the state’s phosphates are mined to make fertilizer. Only nine of the 27 mines are operating, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and little is known about conditions in open ponds.

“The whole path of the hurricane went up where there are many of those ponds for phosphates,” Hecker said. “We anticipate high levels of every type of contamination.”

Climate change is wrecking septic tanks

Sewage poses another problem in big storms. Many of the local sewers are connected to electrical pumps, and when they fail sewage can surge up through manhole covers and street grates. Generators can provide backup, but most of those generators are needed to power homes or provide cellphone service, which one environmental leader said was out for a one-hour radius around her office.

In addition, Hecker said, “septic tanks are failing in some areas and waste comes bubbling up from storm drains.”

Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, said that septic tank inundation was “harder to track since so many septic tanks are in low lying areas. It is not a point source you can monitor.”

But Rinaman said that there have been improvements thanks to large investments by the local utility in Jacksonville to provide backup power at “lift stations” that provide pumping ability. She said the utility was “on the leading edge on resiliency efforts.”

Next to all that, Hurricane Ian posed a relatively easy challenge when it passed through the Piney Point site. The storm produced over 6.74 inches of rain and strong winds but the Department of Environmental Protection said in a note on Thursday evening that it had inspected the waste ponds and found that “there is no identified damage to the compartment systems or any other water management concerns.”

Piney Point has received approximately 49.2 inches of rain since Jan. 1, the DEP said. The current storage capacity for additional rainfall at the site is approximately 21 inches, the agency added.

Donica said after he took over the troubled company in bankruptcy his job was to close it down or “take it around the side of the barn and shoot it.”

But he said that fertilizer seepage from private homes would remain a problem because too many wealthy people were buying property, erecting large homes and using lawn fertilizer that would seep into the water.

“These properties along the bay are very attractive,” he said. “People fall in love and buy building lots and build a house. Then they take septic tank. Install really good landscaping. And start throwing phosphorous over the lawn.”

But the population has soared, and septic tanks leak and kill fish. “My stuff will be gone,” Donica said. “The other stuff will still be out there.”

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