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Florida officials scrambling to empty wastewater reservoir after leak found

DeSantis issues a state of emergency
piney point.PNG
Posted at 10:20 AM, Apr 05, 2021

PALMETTO, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a State of Emergency for Manatee County on Saturday due to a leak at the old Piney Point phosphate mine.

DeSantis and county administrators announced Sunday during a news conference that the goal is to ensure the integrity of the gypsum stack as quickly as possible in order to minimize impacts to local residents and to prevent an uncontrolled discharge.

"Our administration is dedicated to full enforcement of any damages to our state's resources and holding the company HRK accountable for this event — this is not acceptable. It's not something we will allow to persist," DeSantis said. "I've asked Secretary Noah Valenstein to work with Manatee County and utilize all available resources to form a permanent solution to this long-standing issue."

DeSantis said the water 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 discharging and the primary concern is nutrients. According to DeSantis, the water meets water quality standards for marine waters, with the exception primarily of phosphorus and nitrogen.

Officials fear the leak could give way to an uncontrolled breach and cause a rush of toxic pollutants to discharge into Tampa Bay, causing a major environmental disaster.

As of Sunday, there is an estimate of below 306 million gallons of water that could breach in a period of minutes, officials said. The models also show that for less than an hour, the breach could be as high as a 20-foot wall of water.

It’s estimated the nearly 80-acre stack originally held between 700-800 million gallons of water, officials said.

The Florida National Guard is in the process of dropping off additional pumps.

"These pumps will be fed into surrounding waterways in an effort to drain the reservoir so we can better mitigate the effects should a full breach of the site occur. And again, we're currently pumping out 33 million gallons per day," DeSantis said.

The Division of Emergency Management has deployed 20 pumps to the area. Those pumps are moving water at a rate of 23,500 gallons per minute, more than 33 million gallons a day.

Manatee County officials say the number one concern is to ensure the safety of the public, the workers and the responders in that zone of the Piney Point breach.

Also, Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh reiterated that Manatee County utility customers' drinking water is completely safe.

"The water distribution system is a closed system without any way for floodwater to enter. There is also no threat to our primary source of drinking water Lake Manatee," Baugh said. "Residents of North manatee in the evacuation area who are on wells for their water, also at this point have no need for concern. Well water is unaffected, so long as the outfall continues to flow safely and to Piney Creek."

Due to the threat, the Florida Highway Patrol also closed a portion of US-41 near Piney Point.

The closure of U.S. 41 spans from the south from Buckeye Road to Moccasin Wallow Road. Moccasin Wallow Road will be closed west of 38th Avenue East.

FHP says US-41 at 113th St E in Manatee & College Ave in Hillsborough is closed. Drivers are asked to detour on College Ave & Moccasin Wallow Road.

Evacuation orders have been issued for residents and businesses near Piney Point. There are an estimated 316 households in the evacuation area.

The orders extend west to U.S. 41 and cover the neighborhoods one mile north of the gypsum stack and a half-mile to the south.

This is the evacuation zone as of 6 p.m. Saturday:

Expanded order

Residents within the evacuation zone need help, they should call Manatee County's 311 Call Center which will connect residents with Red Cross resources.

Early Saturday morning, crews worked to pile dirt and rock near the area of the leak, but the attempts were unsuccessful.

"I want to thank the brave men and women who have been working literally around the clock to minimize any impacts that this situation may have for public safety," Baugh said. "Led by our Public Works and Emergency Management teams, crews worked up until 2:30 a.m. today to try to reinforce the berm wall of the breached areas of the gyp stacks. Those efforts were, unfortunately, unsuccessful."

Later she added that Manatee Sheriff's Office has said residents within the evacuation zone are believed to be out and safe.

Another 32 million gallons of water per day is being safely drawn down by pumps to a drain into Tampa Bay from the top of the 79-acre pond. An estimated 306 million gallons of high-nutrient saltwater remain in the pond.

The state is in the process of sending pumps and cranes to the area which will be necessary to help control the rush of water if a breach occurs.

Officials say around 4 p.m. on Friday, they noticed another leak on the north wall of the containment area, leading to the expansion of the evacuation zone.

County Administrator Scott Hopes says officials are actively emptying around 22,000 gallons of water every minute into Tampa Bay at Port Manatee.

Hopes says it will likely take between 10 and 12 days before the pond is completely empty. As to when people who live in the evacuation zone can get back into their homes, he says that is a moving target.

“If we are only dealing with the current situation, then they should be able to offload a majority of the water in that one 77-acre area, within 10-12 days, and then it would be safe. The other structures are far more stable at the moment. This happens to be the highest one, and it’s one that has been perhaps the least stable," said Hopes.

While it is a small residential area, there are still between 15 and 20 homes with families and animals, which are all under that mandatory evacuation.

“It goes into being a little nervous about the future. We live out in the country on six acres, and we live on a well. So is this gonna get into our well water? How long has it been leaking, is it safe to bathe my children in it? Wash my dishes in it, you know, how long is the long-term effects gonna be? And then, we’re avid boaters, and we fish, and we don’t want to see that being dumped out into our beautiful bay and to have fish killed and wildlife killed,” said Skye Grundy, a resident who lives near the evacuation zone.

County Administrator Scott Hopes says the Department of Environmental Protection is constantly testing the drinking water in the area, and that it is still safe to drink.

Hopes says the majority of the water in the retention pond is silt and saltwater from a dredging project in Port Manatee several years ago. He says the water has a pH balance of around 5.7, and that it is safe to put back into Tampa Bay, but that the water is still contaminated.

Manatee County Public Safety is working with the American Red Cross to establish a shelter for affected residents. Manatee County’s Emergency Management Team has responded to the scene to assist on-site.

While crews continue to relieve water from the pond, Hopes said crews are actively trying to back up support of the southeast wall of the retention pond in order to prevent a total collapse of the gypsum stack.

This problem is one that has been ongoing, and county and state leaders committed themselves on Friday to put an end to the problem once and for all.

“Our top priority is getting through this emerging problem, this instant problem, this emergency that we have today, and we’ll get the money, we’ll solve the problem. this has been our top legislative delegation priority for at least a year now, but, and I said this to the press a couple days ago, this quarter century debate on what to do with this property needs to come to an end,” said Rep. Will Robinson, R-Manatee.

This story was originally published by McKenna King, Brody Wooddell and Matthew Borek on WFTS in Tampa, Florida.