April 13, 2021

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Drone IDs possible second breach at Florida wastewater site as crews race to pump out water

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SARASOTA, Fla. – A drone equipped with thermal imaging equipment identified a possible “second breach” in the containment pond wall that is leaking polluted water at the old Piney Point fertilizer processing plant property in Florida, officials said Monday.

The drone imaging could be a sign of further structural problems with the wall and a deteriorating situation, or it could be nothing. A Manatee County official said it’s not clear if the drone had identified something that already was known.

The potential discovery comes as millions of gallons of wastewater were being pumped from the Piney Point reservoir into the Tampa Bay ecosystem, a move that could avoid disaster at the reservoir but could have harmful effects like red tide and fish kills in the Tampa Bay waters.

What we know:Florida crews are pumping wastewater into Tampa Bay to avoid a full reservoir breach

Two dolphins swim in the wake of a Tampa Bay Waterkeeper boat March 31 during a media tour of the wastewater discharge location at Port Manatee in Florida. Millions of gallons of industrial wastewater are being pumped into the bay as the result of a leak at the Piney Point fertilizer plant processing plant.

A team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was assessing the structural integrity of the phosphogypsum stack’s containment pond wall Monday, Manatee County officials said.

As of Monday afternoon, the worst-case scenario – a total collapse of the earthen berm that would cause floodwater to inundate nearby properties – had been avoided, but the possible identification of additional weakness in the wall could be a concern.

Officials are in a race against time to pump enough water out of the pond to alleviate pressure on breaches in the wall and avoid its collapse.

Local coverage from the USA TODAY Network:Residents near Piney Point evacuation zone keep a wary eye on phosphate wastewater leak

A still image from video shows the breach in the containment wall of the Piney Point reservoir in Manatee County, Fla.

Manatee County acting Administrator Scott Hopes said about 35 million gallons are being pumped out of the pond daily, but when additional pumps are operating later Monday that will increase to between 75 million and 100 million gallons daily. 

“A leak in the containment wall continues at the Piney Point facility. … The seepage rates remained steady overnight,” County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur said during a news conference Monday. “At approximately 2 a.m. an infrared drone identified a signature that could indicate a second breach.”

Engineers were “reassessing” the possible second breach Monday, Saur said.

Saur said in a follow-up interview that officials can’t say for sure if the wall’s structural integrity has further deteriorated.

“The engineers are not sure if they already knew about that second breach or not,” Saur said, adding: “It might be nothing.”

More from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:Have questions about the Piney Point wastewater release? We have answers

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., toured the Piney Point area by helicopter April 5.

‘We’re in a critical stage’

The containment pond held less than 300 million gallons early Monday afternoon. Hopes said that within 48 hours “we will be at a situation where we will no longer have that risk of a full breach.” About 150 to 200 million gallons need to be pumped out to reach that point, Saur said.

But for now, county officials are urging people within the flood zone if the containment wall collapses to take the evacuation notice seriously.

“You need to take that evacuation message to heed,” Saur said. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We’re in a critical stage.”

More than 300 homes and multiple businesses in the area around Piney Point have been evacuated. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office said 345 low-risk jail inmates were moved to an undisclosed location because of concerns about floodwaters reaching the jail.

The review of the site Monday by the Army Corps is the first time an engineering team independent of the property owner, HRK Holdings, has analyzed the situation. Officials had been relying on a third-party engineering contractor hired by HRK.

“We have an entirely new team that’s doing an independent assessment,” Hopes said.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., who toured the site via helicopter Monday, urged the Army Corps and the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection to get involved. 

“I want the best and the brightest on the ground,” Buchanan said.

During a helicopter tour Monday, Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida surveyed wastewater being pumped into Tampa Bay.

Buchanan said the problems at Piney Point were years in the making, and probably should have been dealt with earlier.

“This is something that, unfortunately, could have been dealt with probably over the years, but I’m not looking to assess blame or anything else,” Buchanan said. “I’m here to do everything I can to help the county and I don’t think it’s just Manatee County, this impacts the region.”

Roughly 480 million gallons were being held in the containment pond before the leak started and officials began pumping water out on March 30. There are two additional ponds in the property as well.

Wastewater being pumped from the Piney Point reservoir in Florida flows into Tampa Bay at Port Manatee via the water-filled ditch in the center of this image.

The water being discharged has high levels of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, and environmental advocates are concerned that it will fuel algae blooms that cause fish kills and other environmental damage.

The situation already is an environmental catastrophe, but it could still get worse if the containment wall collapses.

“I want to be hopeful, optimistic,” Buchanan said. “But just the fact that we’re running water into Tampa Bay is not a great thing, it’s not a great place to be at.”

The shoreline along Tampa Bay, just north of Port Manatee and Piney Point. Millions of gallons of wastewater are being pumped into Tampa Bay at Port Manatee in an effort to avoid a catastrophic failure of a containment wall at Piney Point.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took an aerial tour of the Piney Point site Sunday. The governor earlier had declared a state of emergency for Manatee County to help direct state resources toward the Piney Point effort. 

The governor said during a press conference that emergency managers had deployed about 20 additional pumps to the site in an effort to double the flow of water out of the pond.

“We are hoping that we can just continue to get the water out in an efficient way and prevent a catastrophic event, but we have to prepare that this could be something where you see further degradation,” DeSantis said.

Contributing: Jay Cannon, USA TODAY

Follow Zac Anderson of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Twitter: @zacjanderson

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