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Bprecht at pbsj.com
Mon Aug 4 11:24:12 EDT 2003
Scientist says dumped waste flows near Keys
BY BECKY IANNOTTA
KEY WEST -- A scientist says wastewater being treated and dumped off the
Tampa coast is being carried by currents around the Florida Keys, a
concern that was raised before the dumping began two weeks ago.
The highly treated wastewater from the defunct Piney Point phosphate
plant in Tampa is being pumped into the ocean about 120 miles offshore
and into the so-called loop current. The current follows a path south
along the west coast of Florida, turns northeast just south of Key West
and parallels the oceanside of the Keys before heading north along the
Satellite images showed traces of the wastewater stream about 15 miles
south of Key West Friday and working its way around the Keys to between
Marathon and Miami Saturday, said Mitchell Roffer, a Miami-based
biological oceanographer hired to monitor the dumping for the fishing
The 7-mile-wide stream was expected to continue flowing toward the East
Coast, leaving some worried that fish-killing red tides or a "black
water" algae bloom could result.
"It's a nutrient-rich cocktail with heavy metals in it," Roffer said "We
don't know if it's a normal algae bloom or a red tide bloom. We won't
know until it's sampled and right now there are no plans by [Department
of Environmental Protection] to sample it."
Scientists believe a large, nutrient-rich patch of other runoff water,
combined with a severe outbreak of red tide, caused the 60-mile-wide
patch of "black water" that appeared off the southwest Florida coast in
late 2001. Marine advocates are concerned that a similar event could
"We don't really know what the impact will be," Roffer said "This is
really one big experiment."
State officials say the current is aiding the project by diluting the
wastewater and should not pose a threat to marine life.
"It's actually helping to disperse it over a large area in a quicker
time than would be happening in the absence of it," said Charles Kovach,
the Florida Department of Environmental Protection chief scientist on
the disposal project.
Once in the loop current, the wastewater is moving at 3-4 knots, or
about 4 miles per hour, Roffer said.
To complicate the chore of pinpointing the cause of the green stretch of
water, a stream of blue-green water flowed from the Mississippi into the
Gulf of Mexico about two weeks ago.
Roffer said the stream appearing on the satellite imagery he is
monitoring could be a mix of the wastewater from Piney Point and the
Mississippi River water.
"We're in pretty good agreement that it's at least in part Piney Point,"
Roffer said. "It's probably a combination so it kind of masks what we're
trying to see."
Water with elevated levels of chlorophyll, consistent with those that
would be expected to result from the wastewater being pumped off the
Tampa coast, appeared on satellite imagery last week west and south of
the Dry Tortugas, which is 70 miles west of Key West, Roffer said. The
appearance of the stream came 10 days after pumping into Tampa Bay
The wastewater is being pumped from the defunct Piney Point phosphate
plant at an estimated cost of $140 million to alleviate the risk of it
overflowing into Tampa Bay.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency permit in
April to disperse the water 40 miles offshore. But that alarmed
environmental groups, fishermen and spongers, so the Florida Department
of Environmental Protection changed the dispersal area to 120 to 150
miles offshore, where waters are 650 feet deep or greater.
Billy Causey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary, said there were few options in the dumping of the Piney Point
wastewater because of the risk of the plant overflowing and destroying
the estuary. He said he had been advised that the high level of dilution
the loop current provides should prevent waters off the Keys from being
affected by the wastewater.
But, he said Saturday, "if there is something there, we need to document
it, alert DEP and look for alternate means" of disposing the wastewater.
In 2001, Piney Point owner Mulberry Corp. went bankrupt. Since then, the
state has been in charge of cleaning up water in the plant's
phosphogypsum stacks. The stacks contain gypsum and acidic water left
over from the process of converting phosphate ore into a fertilizer
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This story published on Sun, Aug 3, 2003
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