SARASOTA, Fla. – After a leak in the liner of a reservoir caused a partial breach in one of its containment walls, officials hope that pumping more than 30 million gallons of wastewater out of the reservoir and into the Tampa Bay ecosystem will relieve pressure on the walls and reduce the chance of an uncontrolled major breach.
More than 300 hundred homes and multiple businesses have been evacuated in the area around Piney Point, a former phosphate plant.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Officials have expressed concern about a full breach of the reservoir. Nearby residents at one point on Saturday received an emergency alert text instructing them to leave the area immediately because the collapse was “imminent.”
Here’s what we know Monday about the situation at Piney Point.
What are the latest efforts to avert a breach at Piney Point?
DeSantis has mobilized state resources to fend off a potentially catastrophic spill of hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted industrial wastewater from the former Piney Point fertilizer processing plant into nearby homes and businesses by working to double the speed at which wastewater is being dumped into Tampa Bay.
The Florida National Guard airlifted more pumps into the area and officials hope that they will be able to double the current 33 million gallons a day of wastewater they are pumping from Piney Point into Tampa Bay to close to 70 million gallons a day.
There are approximately 300 million gallons of wastewater left in the damaged reservoir at Piney Point.
Local coverage from the USA TODAY Network:DeSantis mobilizes state resources for Piney Point response, efforts to double Tampa Bay discharge rate
What’s the status of evacuations due to Piney Point?
More than 300 households and multiple businesses have been evacuated from the area surrounding Piney Point. Some have been provided with accommodation by Manatee County and the Red Cross.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office announced that they were moving 345 inmates of the nearby Manatee County Jail to an undisclosed location, in order to clear the ground floor of the facility in case of flooding.
At a Saturday press conference with DeSantis, Manatee County Acting Administrator Scott Hopes said that if there is a full breach of the walls at the damaged Piney Point reservoir, models show that “as high as a 20-foot wall of water” could surge into the area.
“So if you are in an evacuation area and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice and follow the orders,” Hopes said.
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What’s in the wastewater? Is it radioactive?
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the wastewater at Piney Point is not radioactive, which dismisses concerns some people have voiced on social media.
The biggest concern with the wastewater that is being released into Tampa Bay is high level nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, which can feed red tide. If a red tide were to occur it could lead to environmental complications such as low oxygen levels that can lead to fish kills.
The Piney Point wastewater in question is primarily salt water from the Port Manatee dredge project, mixed with legacy fertilizer production process water and rain.
Tampa Bay area fishing Capt. Justin Moore, a second generation fishing guide who has been a captain since 1999, said he’s deeply concerned that the nutrient-rich water being released will cause harmful algae blooms.
“I just don’t know how much more these bays can take,” Moore said. “It’s really unfortunate to see the ecosystem go through this again when this really could have been prevented.”
Moore said he took a boat ride recently around the area where the water is being dumped and said there is already a change in watercolor. The water normally is clear this time of year, but Moore said it currently is a greenish yellow.
“There were no birds, hardly any mullet, you can tell the fish are sensing it and moving away from it,” Moore said.
Will local drinking water be affected by the issues at Piney Point?
One of the most frequent questions from nearby residents has been: “How does this affect our drinking water?”
Manatee County issued a special press release on Sunday, assuring that the drinking water is “completely safe to drink.”
“The water distribution system is a closed system without any way for flood water to enter. There is also no threat at all to our primary source of drinking water, Lake Manatee,” said County Commission Chairman Vanessa Baugh.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said there is no impact to groundwater from the Piney Point water. He said DEP is actively monitoring controlled discharges to capture any impacts to the environment.
Even if a major breach occurs, Manatee County officials believe that well water will continue to be safe, but will direct the Department of Health to do testing if that happens.
Who is to blame – and who is responsible – for the problems at Piney Point?
State Rep. Will Robinson said a permanent solution to lingering issues at Piney Point has been difficult to find over the years because the private property has changed owners multiple times, and government officials have continuously debated over proper solutions, as well as whether taxpayer funding should be used to clean up private property.
“That is the problem,” Robinson said. “It is an incredibly challenging puzzle because you have a landowner – it is private property – this landowner bought the property with full knowledge of the environmental conditions on it. So it’s the taxpayer, because of the inefficiencies of the landowner’s financial situation, that are having to step up and clean up the site.”
That said, both FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein and Gov. DeSantis have said that they will be taking Piney Point owners HRK Holdings to task.
“I also want to be clear that while foremost concern is ensuring the safety of the community, our administration is dedicated to full enforcement of any damages to our state’s resources and holding the company – HRK – accountable for this event,” DeSantis said.
More from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:Accountability a looming question with Piney Point leak, Tampa Bay wastewater discharge
A history of Piney Point’s problems
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, part of the USA TODAY Network, has been covering Piney Point for more than a decade. Take a look at this timeline created by designer Jen Borresen for a 2013 story about the Manatee County phosphate plant.
In 2019, the Manatee County Commission stressed that one of its top legislative priorities of the year was to ensure the state agency has adequate funding to reduce contaminated water and avert a potential disaster from elevated reservoirs at Piney Point. Officials were concerned that a major storm could cause the reservoir to overflow.
In 2011, parts of the Tampa Bay was flushed with nearly 170 million gallons of contaminated water from Piney Point after the plant was compromised during a Port Manatee dredging operation.
Contributing: Zac Anderson, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Jay Cannon, USA TODAY; staff of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune
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