The Morning Jolt

Energy & Environment

The Toxic Spill in Tampa Bay

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.) speaks during CPAC in Orlando, Fla., February 26, 2021. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

I’m back, and thank you to Alexandra DeSanctis and Isaac Schorr for filling in during my vacation. On the menu today: the complicated backstory on the worries about that potential toxic leak in Tampa Bay and what Florida governor Ron DeSantis is doing about it; the Miami Marlins’ new general manager Kim Ng and the importance of offering genuine opportunities to minorities, and not just public-relations window-dressing; and comparing a 2020 vision of post-pandemic life to the reality that is gradually taking shape around us — with particular focus on the dire state of daily life in Iran.

Ron DeSantis and the Coming Blame Game for the Tampa Bay Toxic Spill

Right across from Saint Petersburg on Florida’s Tampa Bay is Manatee County, where a phosphate-processing plant that closed two decades ago has gradually built up a reservoir of 480 million gallons of acidic water. That chemical-laden byproduct is now in danger of spilling into Tampa Bay, and, from there, the Gulf of Mexico.

Phosphate is a key ingredient in fertilizer and was a vital part of Florida’s economy for a long stretch. From 1973 to 2003, phosphate ore generated more than $1 billion in taxes for the state’s budget, and millions more in local property taxes. You can see why a company would want to establish phosphate-processing operations in that location at Piney Point; it’s right next to the Manatee County Port, and the phosphate could be easily shipped by sea. Unfortunately, that site is also in between protected wetlands such as the Tampa Bay Estuarine Ecosystem Rock Ponds Area and the Terra Ceia Preserve State Park.

Processing phosphate generates a lot of waste material and wastewater, which was turned into phosphogypsum stacks, or “gyp stacks” — large, flat, artificial, above-ground reservoirs lined with plastic, containing potentially toxic wastewater. The water evaporates in sunny weather but gets refilled when it rains — and as you’ve probably noticed, it rains a lot in Florida.

This is not the first time a leak from the Piney Point site forced evacuations. Way back in 1989, a 23,000-gallon leak of sulfuric acid from a holding tank forced the evacuation of hundreds of people, including Port Manatee workers. In 2001, Mulberry Corporation declared bankruptcy and left the state with two giant pits of water filled with nitrogen, phosphorous, and ammonia. Back in 2011, the port of Manatee was using the site to dump sediment from a port-dredging project — and spilled about 170 million gallons of phosphate-tainted water into nearby Bishop Harbor.

On March 26, the site’s operator notified county officials that water was escaping from the reservoirs without being treated, and further inspections concluded that in the worst-case scenario, the barriers containing the water could suddenly collapse, sending a 20-foot wall of toxic water rushing into the surrounding area. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has deployed 20 pumps, 10 vacuum trucks, and more than 100,000 bottles of water, and yesterday Dr. Scott Hopes, the acting Manatee County administrator, said that there are now fewer than 300 million gallons of water left to be pumped from the leaking reservoir.

More than 300 households have been evacuated, although thankfully no one has been hurt so far. Several major roads were closed, and a local jail a mile away moved staff and inmates to the second floor and put down sandbags. Fortunately, there is no threat to drinking water, as the water-distribution system is a closed system without any way for flood water to enter, and the area’s primary source of drinking water, Lake Manatee, is not connected to these waterways. Local officials say the controlled releases will not affect well water or groundwater.

According to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, the water being let out through controlled releases “meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen. It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern.” Controlled discharges are “ongoing at a rate of approximately 22,000 gallons per minute.”

It is likely that in the coming days and weeks, preexisting critics of Florida governor Ron DeSantis will contend that this mess is his fault. But this site has been a headache for multiple local and state administrations going back at least two decades: “HRK Holdings acquired the Piney Point site in 2006. For years, officials have pointed to the amount of process water held on the site. . . . On Sunday, Hopes, the county administrator, said that once the crisis has been resolved, the ponds will likely be drained, filled and capped.”

DeSantis inherited this mess; this potential crisis, as bad as it may be, may finally be the impetus to solve a long-lingering problem.

Could state and local officials — who already spent $140 million back in 2004 to barge millions of gallons of the waste more than 100 miles away from shore to dump it — have spent an additional $20 million or so more to completely clean up the site at some point? Sure, but everyone involved thinks someone else should foot the bill. The state is in charge of the site’s environmental protection, while HRK Holdings owns the land and apparently is ignoring state requirements to clean up the site. Last October, Representative Vern Buchanan, whose district includes the site, asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to oversee efforts to properly and safely dispose of the toxic waste. Doing just about anything with the site results in lengthy and costly lawsuits. The company responsible for creating the mess went out of business long ago. HRK Holdings contributed $3.8 million for cleanup of the site when they bought the property, and in its eyes, it is doing what they’re supposed to do — taking an abandoned industrial site and turning it into something useful. The company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy over expenses from the cleanup in 2011 and reorganized. And the company contends it has been warning the county and state that the reservoirs were nearing capacity and that the liner system was developing cracks and weaknesses.

The next update on the potential breach is scheduled for shortly after noon.

The Importance of Giving Minority Job Applicants a Genuinely Fair Shot

Vacation gives me time to read stuff I usually wouldn’t, and I ran across a recent Sports Illustrated profile of Kim Ng, the new general manager of the Miami Marlins — the first woman, and the first Asian-American general manager of a Major League Baseball team. I think the detail that jumped out at me was this description of how often she had gone through with an interview for a GM position, when, deep down, she suspected she was not really a candidate for the job:

She had gotten this call many times — she ballparks double digits. A team was looking for a GM, and would she like to interview? Some owners just wanted to check a box: We talked to a woman, and a Chinese American woman at that! No major North American men’s sports franchise had ever hired a woman as GM, and no one of East Asian descent had ever run a baseball team; just interviewing her made a team look progressive. Ng knew what they were doing, but she still prepared for the meetings — 15 hours a day for weeks — as if they were all giving her an honest shot.

I wouldn’t presume to speak for women, or ethnic minorities. I think most would say they don’t want special treatment or a lower standard, and that they just want a fair shot like everyone else. But that shot needs to be a genuinely fair shot. Tokenism, and turning minority job candidates into metaphorical window-dressing designed to make an institution look open-minded, is just a different form of harm; it’s closed-mindedness designed to make an institution seem woke. The NFL is having similar problems with the “Rooney Rule” — requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate when they have an opening for head-coach or general-manager positions. Oftentimes, owners have a replacement candidate in mind when the old coach is fired — so the interview process becomes an exercise in checking boxes before announcing the preordained conclusion.

Maybe Ng and the Marlins will thrive, or maybe she and the team will fall flat on their faces. (The National League East is not an easy place to play this year.) But I’m glad she’s getting her shot, and that’s one of the reassuring things about sports — the results are all on the field and on the scoreboard. Sure, luck, injuries, the decisions of other teams, and even weather are all factors — but baseball, with its (usually) 162-game season, gives teams the longest opportunity for luck to even out.

ADDENDUM: When I wrote Hunting Four Horsemen in the spring and summer of last year, I set it in “the spring after the COVID-19 pandemic ended,” not knowing whether that would be spring of this year or spring of 2022. (Sharp-eyed readers will notice that while the specific year is never mentioned, the dates and days of the week line up with 2021.)

I thought it would be interesting to compare the state of the world as foreseen in the book to the state of the real world today.

On Monday, April 5, our heroes begin their adventure in Flam, Norway — a tiny village amongst the fjords where a couple of National Review cruises ago, a flat tire nearly left Jonah Goldberg, my brother, and myself stranded with the country’s biggest Jonah Goldberg fan in a scenario that left visions of Stephen King’s Misery in my head.

The difficulty getting into Norway depicted in the book lines up pretty well with the current reality: Right now, only Norwegian nationals and foreign nationals who reside in Norway are allowed to enter the country. Norwegian cruises are suspended through June 2021. And the tourism sector of the Norwegian economy has largely collapsed.

The characters encounter an Iranian expatriate who describes his country being devastated by COVID-19, with the regime hanging on by its fingernails, remaining in power only because every internal force that could topple it was hit even harder by the virus. While the real-life Iranian regime isn’t on the verge of collapse, the country is in rough, rough shape:

Last year as Nowruz approached, the country of 83 million had become a global epicenter of the coronavirus. The virus coursed across Iran as heads of shrines called on pilgrims to keep coming and authorities dismissed alarm over rising deaths. Desperate to salvage its ailing economy, the government resisted a nationwide lockdown, further spreading the disease.

Now, the pain of the pandemic runs too deep to deny. The virus has touched all aspects of daily life, infecting some 1.78 million people, overwhelming hospitals, filling vast cemeteries and pummeling an economy already reeling from U.S. sanctions.

Iran’s economy shrank 5% last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Over 1 million people lost their jobs in 2020, reported the Interior Ministry. Inflation has soared to nearly 50% compared to 10% in 2018, before then-President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers and re-imposed sanctions. The prices of basic goods, including Nowruz staples like spiced nuts and clothes, have doubled or tripled.

To the extent that we can trust the numbers from the regime, Iran currently ranks 15th in the world in COVID-19 cases, and twelfth in the world in COVID-19 deaths — worst in the Middle East. Last fall, a senior member of Iran’s medical association contended that the country’s death toll from the coronavirus is three to four times the official number released by the government.

If that estimate is accurate, Iran would rank third or fourth in the world in total deaths, based upon the available (and often not easily verifiable) figures.

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