Officials fear ‘uncontrolled’ breach of Florida wastewater reservoir; hundreds evacuated

The full breach of a Florida wastewater reservoir could unleash hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted industrial water into the nearby area, a threat that prompted officials to issue an evacuation order for residents near Tampa Bay and the governor to declare a state of emergency.

Models show that a full breach of the walls at the damaged Piney Point reservoir could cause “as high as a 20-foot wall of water” to surge into the surrounding area, Manatee County Acting Administrator Scott Hopes said at a Sunday press conference.

“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.

Piney Point phosphogypsum stacks in Manatee County, Florida, in 2020.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said a break was detected Friday in one of the walls of a 77-acre pond that has a depth of 25 feet and holds millions of gallons of water containing phosphorus and nitrogen from an old phosphate plant.

After officials attempted to plug the hole using rocks and other materials, engineers examined the Piney Point containment walls Saturday morning and determinedthere was imminent danger of collapse.

Hopes said Saturday that the damage to the retaining wall already constitutes a partial breach, so efforts were being aimed at stopping a full breach.

“We’re talking about the potential of about 600 million gallons in a matter of seconds and minutes leaving that retention pool,” Hopes said.

Two pipes were pumping thousands of gallons of water per minute from the site owned by HRK Holdings into Tampa Bay to help relieve pressure of the retaining walls.

Local coverage from the USA TODAY Network:Piney Point live updates: Full breach could send ‘as much as a 20-foot wall of water’ surging out

The pond contains a mix of processed wastewater from the former Piney Point fertilizer operation, sea water, dredging material, rainwater and seepage water. Officials have said the wastewater is about as acidic as a cup of black coffee and contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus – which has caused concerns the dumping could feed red tide and cause other environmental impacts on Tampa Bay.

“The risk that we’re dealing with right now is that uncontrolled release,” Hopes said.

Two dolphins swim in the wake of a Tampa Bay Waterkeeper boat Wednesday during a media tour of the wastewater discharge location at Port Manatee. Millions of gallons of industrial wastewater are being pumped into Tampa Bay as the result of a leak at the Piney Point fertilizer plant processing plant. Taken March 31, 2021.

DeSantis expands state of emergency amid concerns of ‘catastrophic flood situation’

The flood threat prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency for Manatee County on Saturday. He expanded that ordinance Sunday to include nearby Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

“This will ensure that all state resources are available for response and recovery,” DeSantis said Sunday. “What we are looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave updates on the Piney Point situation during a Sunday morning press conference held at Manatee County's Public Safety Department in Bradenton, Florida, on April 4, 2021.

Some of the more than 316 households affected by the mandatory evacuation order have been put in hotels by Manatee County and the Red Cross, according to DeSantis.

He also reiterated a sentiment expressed Saturday by Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein about holding the appropriate people or businesses accountable for the Piney Point breach.

“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.

He dismissed concerns that many people have expressed on social media that the discharged water is radioactive.

“To be clear, the water discharged into Port Manatee is not radioactive,” DeSantis said. 

DeSantis also said that the state has deployed pumps to assist in mitigating the stress on the damaged walls of the reservoir, significantly increasing the amount being discharged from the approximately 33 million gallons per day that have been pumped into Tampa Bay since Thursday.

There are no public water sources in the area affected by Piney Point, and DeSantis said that any private wells would be tested and residents would be provided with bottled water.

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

Nearby residents expressed confusion, concern and frustration over the situation.

“We are at .6 miles,” said Lorie Minallo, who was just outside of the evacuation zone. “This has been our life for a while now, 14 years. We have never been notified – the first time (when there was a leak in 2011) nor this time. Why is it still going on? Why hasn’t anybody stepped up and done anything? They are going to ruin everything out here in Tampa Bay, and all the property owners now. It’s just ridiculous.”

Down the road, Stacey Lecass said she just moved to a new home in the neighborhood without knowing about the hazard Piney Point posed.

“We moved here about three months ago,” she said. “We are not in the evacuation, but there is no information at all. Nothing at all. We moved here in the middle of January. Nothing at all, we knew nothing.”

Contributing: Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Associated Press

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