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Is a 20-Foot Wall of Contaminated Water Possible in Florida?

A worst-case scenario could send 20 feet of contaminated water flooding from the site, Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said Sunday during a news briefing with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Aerial view of a large reservoir.
Aerial photo of the phosphogypsum stacks at the former Piney Point phosphate plant where one stack is in danger of imminent collapse, officials in Florida say, on April 2, 2021. (Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS)
(TNS) - Manatee County remained under a state of emergency Sunday as federal, state and local leaders worked to contain a leak at a former phosphate processing plant that threatens to contaminate the area with millions of gallons of polluted water.
A worst-case scenario could send 20 feet of contaminated water flooding from the site, Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said Sunday during a news briefing with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A total breach that spurts out uncontrolled water could also destabilize gypsum stacks that contain radioactive material.
But by Sunday afternoon, officials appeared more confident that the risk of a major disaster could be dramatically lower by Tuesday with the help of additional resources from the state to drain the leaking pond.
Crews on Friday found a breach in the site’s largest pond, which originally contained about 480 million gallons of water. Because of potential flooding, an emergency evacuation order was ordered in the area, and it has been expanded to more than 300 homes. U.S. 41 remains closed to traffic to Moccasin Wallow Road.
“The models for less than an hour could be a 20-foot wall of water,” Hopes said. “If you’re in an evacuation area and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice.”
Hopes also said that current models show 1 to 5 feet of flooding as more likely. And officials say they remain optimistic that an increase in a controlled water release from the site, strategically pumped into Tampa Bay, can prevent disaster.
A controlled release of untreated water from the site and into Tampa Bay continues at a rate of 33-35 million gallons a day, and additional pumps were set to “nearly double” the capacity of water leaving the site by Monday morning. The Florida National Guard said two of its helicopters placed two pumps at a berm to help lower the pond water level.
Water is also escaping the pond through an uncontrolled discharge that is draining north into Piney Point Creek, which connects through Cockroach Bay to Tampa Bay. As of Friday, that leak had a rate of about 40-50 gallons a minute, according to a pollution notice site owner HRK Holdings, LLC submitted to FDEP.
“Looking at the volume of the water that has been removed and the current stability of the current breach, I think the team is much more comfortable than we were yesterday,” Hopes said Sunday. “With the addition of the pumps ..., I think we’re going to be in an even better position. We are not out of the critical area yet.”
The complete collapse and full breach of the system are still possible, officials said. In that event, the leak would also spill some of the radioactive gypsum material sitting below the pond.
“As we have reported earlier, if there were to be a full breach, a section of the gypsum stack would be part of that breach,” Hopes confirmed. “The current expectation is that, should there be a full breach, it would be in the eastern or southeastern wall.”
Even if a full breach does occur, Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh assured residents that public drinking water would not be affected. Private wells in and around the evacuation are also thought to be safe.
“Well water is unaffected so long as the outfall continues to flow safely into Piney Creek,” Baugh said. “If a breach occurs, we believe that the surface layers of dirt and earth will safely filter any harmful nutrients near the surface. In addition, if an uncontrolled breach occurs, the Department of Health will issue any necessary advisories regarding the safety of the well water.”
DeSantis, who declared an emergency order for nearby counties Saturday, took an aerial tour of the site Sunday morning.
“Public health and safety is the top priority,” DeSantis said. “The goal is to ensure the integrity of the stack system as quickly as possible.”
The governor said the water leaking from the site is not radioactive.
“It is primarily saltwater from the Port Manatee dredge project mixed with legacy process water and stormwater runoff. The water was tested prior to discharge. The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with exception primarily of the phosphorous and the nitrogen.”
However, environmentalists have expressed some concern that the nutrient-rich water would contribute to a harmful algae bloom. Algae, which is a naturally occurring organism, feeds on nitrogen and can create large blooms that can harm marine life, human health and local tourism.
Engineers are using drones to monitor the breach. Public Safety Director Jacob Saur explained that the drones are also capable of detecting structural integrity problems.
There were no major changes at the site overnight, Saturday into Sunday, Saur said.
“It looks like it got a little larger,” he said of the leak.
Less than 300 million gallons remained in the leaking pond on Sunday afternoon.
“It looks like it got a little larger,” he said of the leak.
In addition to homes and warehouses, the Manatee County Jail is in the evacuation zone. Rather than evacuating, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has placed sandbags at entrances and plans to move inmates to upper levels in case of a flood. The jail’s medical unit and all personnel had been moved to the second floor as of Sunday morning.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection secretary Noah Valenstein called the disaster the “last chapter” for the site.
“Piney Point has a long story with many chapters to it,” Valenstein told the Bradenton Herald in an interview. “After this incident, and looking into the future, we will stay mobilized until this site is closed. It’s our commitment to make sure this is the last chapter and last story about this site.”
The site, across from Manatee’s port, opened in 1966 to process phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilizer. It became inactive in 2001, but the site as been an environmental headache for 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. That water is a chemical byproduct of phosphate mining, and it is filled with nitrogen, phosphorous and ammonia. Those nutrients can affect local water quality.
But the leak discovered last month and the partial breach that followed has been the most serious problem at the site.
On Sunday, Hopes said that once the crisis has been resolved, the ponds will likely be drained, filled and capped.
The next update on Piney Point is expected to come during a news briefing with U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, at 12:30 p.m. Monday.
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