Florida officials work to avoid ‘catastrophic’ pond collapse near Tampa Bay
Apr 05 2021
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Sunday headed for the site of a defunct phosphate plant south of Tampa, where a leak at a waste water reservoir forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes and threatened to flood the area and Tampa Bay with polluted water. Authorities expanded the evacuation area later on Saturday to include more homes, but said they were not planning to open shelters. Some families were evacuated in local hotels.
Acting Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes says with two pipes, 22,000 gallons per minute are being drawn and at that rate it will take 10-12 days to drain the water in a controlled fashion "so at least this material stays on Piney Point grounds".
Manatee County officials said in an emergency alert sent to area residents late on Saturday.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the water in the pound is mostly saltwater mixed with stormwater and wastewater. "The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception primarily of the phosphorus and the nitrogen", DeSantis said.
Moreover, the water that is being discharged is "slightly acidic". On Friday, a significant leak was detected.
Hopes, the county administrator, said Sunday that with new state resources, crews will be almost doubling the amount of water being pumped out of the pond and taken to Port Manatee.
"We're talking about the possibility of around 600 million gallons leaving the detention pool and flowing across the entire area in a matter of seconds and minutes", he added.
Officials saw recently, an increase of water that leaks out but Hopes said it appears to have plateaued. The water running out on its own is going to Piney Point creek and into Cockroach Bay, an aquatic preserve in the Tampa Bay north of the facility. He added though, that "we are not out of the critical area yet".
Hopes said he could not rule out that a full breach could destabilize the walls of the other ponds at the Piney Point site.
The Florida DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said another pond has higher levels of metals.
"We won't be repairing the liner, we will be depleting the holding ponds of their water and then we will be moving forward to a permanent solution into the future once we mitigate the current risk", Hopes said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a coordinator on the scene to work with emergency management and provide support as necessary, said EPA spokeswoman Brandi Jenkins.
Environmental groups urged the USA federal government to step in.
Phosphogypsum is a byproduct of fertilizer production and is considered weakly radioactive as it contains naturally occurring isotopes such as radon.
"So if you are in an evacuation area and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice and follow the orders", said Hopes at a news conference with DeSantis.
But the EPA says too much nitrogen in the wastewater causes algae to grow faster, leading to fish kills. Sam algal blooms can put humans to danger as well, if they come into contact with polluted waters, or if they eat contaminated fish.