Manatee County, DEP hold public meeting to discuss deep well injection plan for Piney Point

Controversy is swirling again about what's next for the old Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County.

Back in March, it dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay following a leak at the plant.

Now, the county wants to pump any remaining wastewater into a well deep in the ground.

"We know that the emergency discharge in Piney Point had significant ecological and economic impacts on Tampa Bay," explained Lindsay Cross of St. Petersburg. "This has been a problem site for decades, and so we really do need to get it right this time."

She was among those who attended a public forum in Manatee County to discuss what's next for Piney Point.

RELATED: State seeking 'maximum possible penalties' in lawsuit against Piney Point owner

Manatee leaders believe their current plan would prevent any further problems at the shuttered plant. They're asking the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a permit to inject the remaining wastewater into a well, thousands of feet underground.

County administrator Dr. Scott Hopes says this needs to get done soon.

"Our goal is to have that well drilled and the equipment in place to be able to start injecting before the rainy season next year," Hopes said.

The county is also trying to assure the public that the process is safe.

"This is science that has been tested, and Manatee County has demonstrated over a 20-year period of time that we can effectively use deep injection wells," he explained.

The DEP will have the final say. The agency first needs to review public comments. More than 5,000 people emailed their concerns. Dozens more submitted theirs in-person on Wednesday -- like Cross, who's worried about environmental impacts.

Environmental organizations have expressed concern that the deep well injection could be damaging. Several groups have filed a lawsuit, hoping to stop the project before it begins.

"We're concerned that the wastewater that they seek to inject into the aquifer is hazardous waste and we don't think that there's been inadequate characterization of what's in that wastewater," said Justin Bloom, with Suncoast Waterkeeper. "I think we have different viewpoints, but we're all here to try to make sure that there is no catastrophic breach at Piney Point."

"I think most everybody is fundamentally concerned with to make sure that we're protecting the environment and to make sure that the process is going to provide for protection of our drinking water systems," added John Coates with the DEPT. "This is a very critical piece and I think what happened earlier this year is just underscores how important it is that this be done thoughtfully and that it be taken all the way to completion."

Dr. Hopes is trying to assure the public that the water won't be impacted; he said the aquifer is about 200 underground, while the deep well would be drilled about 3,000 feet below the surface.

Coates said it will likely take several weeks to decide if the agency will issue a permit.