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First pond atop the troubled Piney Point gypsum stack is closed

A milestone was reached Thursday, as one of the wastewater ponds atop the Piney Point phosphate plant was closed. This means the troubled plant is one step closer to being closed - forever.

State environmental officials are lauding the closure of what is called the OGS-South compartment area. It is one of four ponds atop the gypsum stack in Manatee County, where a leak in 2021 resulted in the release of more than 200 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. That was later blamed in part for one of the worst outbreaks of red tide to ever plague the bay.

To get to this point, workers had to remove 270 million gallons of water atop the gypstack, install a new liner, and cover it with soil and grass. Any new rainfall will be routed to a stormwater retention area near the bottom of the stack.

In April, an injection well was dug that will place much of the polluted water from the four ponds deep below the drinking water aquifer. Workers are injecting at least 700,000 gallons of wastewater every day. When the project is completed, about half a billion gallons will have been cleaned and drained.

"I am thankful for the progress we have seen at Piney Point to date – including the work to secure and protect the site during two hurricanes – and am encouraged as the court-appointed receiver has completed this first phase of closure work," said Shawn Hamilton, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. "DEP looks forward to the receiver's continued work to expedite the next phase of closure and eventually the full closure of the facility."

Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the site be closed after the 2021 spill. So far, the state has spent about $185 million toward the project.

Herb Donica, the court-appointed receiver, has estimated the closure of the entire gypstack should be completed by the end of 2024.