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Evacuations Lifted at Piney Point Phosphate Pond as Draining Continues

By Ron Brackett

6 days ago

At a Glance

  • Evacuees were allowed to return home Tuesday afternoon.
  • Pumps are emptying the wastewater pond at 23,500 gallons a minute.
  • Some wastewater is being stored at the Piney Point site.
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Evacuation orders were lifted Tuesday afternoon for 300 homes near the leaking Piney Point phosphate pond in Manatee County, Florida.

“The leak in the retaining wall continues at the Piney Point facility but seepage rates have decreased," county public safety director Jacob Saur said in a news conference.

Saur said the Army Corps of Engineers created an updated inundation map using more in-depth data to help guide officials in their decision making.

“The new map showed much lower flow both in terms of volume and velocity, and across the entirety of the affected area should a breach occur," he said.

About 136 people and 36 pets were put up in local hotel rooms during the evacuation, according to Sauer.

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Noah Valenstein, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said plans were underway to deploy an underwater drone to find the exact source of the leak and create a patch.

Earlier, officials said wastewater continued to seep from the liner in the Piney Point phosphate pond, but had stopped leaking from a large breach in the wall surrounding the pond that was the primary source of leakage.

What had been thought to be a sign of a second leak turned out to be vegetation that caused a temperature change on a thermal imaging drone, County Administrator Scott Hopes said.

The large breach in one wall of the gypsum stack surrounding the pond had also stopped, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced Monday night. That breach had been releasing about 70,000 gallons a day into Piney Point Creek, which connects through Cockroach Bay to Tampa Bay, according to the Bradenton Herald.

During an update Tuesday morning to County Commissioners, Hopes said a leak in the liner in the pond continues to seep at the same rate. The water from that leak is being controlled by being pumped into another pond on the site, he said.

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Meanwhile, the acidic wastewater, which contains phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia, is being pumped out of the pond at 23,500 gallons a minute, according to Hopes. Those pumps took another 19 million gallons out of the retention pond overnight Monday into Tuesday, he said.

About 303 million gallons remained in the pond Tuesday morning, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. About 165 million gallons have been discharged to the port, the department reported.

Hopes said not all of the water coming out of the pond is being pumped into Tampa Bay. Some water is being shipped out in tanker trucks. He also said huge tanks are being shipped to the site that will be able to hold 150 million gallons.

“We’re only releasing out what needs to be released,” he said.

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Water that is being pumped into the bay is directed at a 40-foot-deep shipping channel at Port Manatee in an effort to keep it from reaching environmentally sensitive estuaries along the bay. The nutrients in the water can cause harmful algae blooms that can cause fish kills.

(MORE: Tampa Bay's Vital Seagrass Beds Could Be Endangered by Discharge)

The water being stored at the site will eventually have to be treated before it is pumped into the bay, Hopes said.

The Department of Environmental Protection said in a news release it is “working to deploy innovative technology to remove nutrients from the water.”

Hopes told commissioners one of those technologies is reverse osmosis, which can filter out the nutrients.

This aerial photo shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate plant, Saturday, April 3, 2021 in Bradenton, Florida. The reservoir sits in a stack of phosphogypsum, a waste product from manufacturing fertilizer. (Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald via AP)
This aerial photo shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate plant, Saturday, April 3, 2021 in Bradenton, Florida. The reservoir sits in a stack of phosphogypsum, a waste product from manufacturing fertilizer.
(Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald via AP)

In Tallahassee, state lawmakers announced plans to use money from the latest COVID-19 stimulus plan to pay for cleanup and the eventual closing of the Piney Point phosphogypsum stacks.

“We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in five, 10, or 20 years,” Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson said, according to Florida Politics. “This is exactly the kind of longstanding infrastructure issue we need to address with the nonrecurring federal funds our state will receive from the American Rescue Plan.”

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Republican Sen. Jim Boyd, who represents Bradenton, will propose a budget amendment to allow the use of the stimulus money at Piney Point.

“This is an issue that has impacted our community for a quarter of a century, and I am grateful to Gov. (Ron) DeSantis for prioritizing this cleanup and promising to hold the responsible parties accountable. With at least one prior accident and now another, recent events have illuminated the need to fix this problem and put it behind us once and for all,” Boyd said.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who represents Manatee and parts of Hillsborough and Sarasota counties in Congress, has also pledged to involve the federal government in closing down Piney Point.

“Enough is enough, so I’m angry about it frankly. I’m going to bring that intensity to make sure that we’re doing what we’ve got to do to get this fixed,” Buchanan said Monday. “I know the county’s focused on it. The state is, but now it’s all of us working together and I’m going to do what I can to muster up the resources.”

At Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge, who represents the beaches along Manatee’s Gulf coast, said he was concerned that discharges from the pond were being called radioactive and toxic.

“I’m not trying to downplay this from what it is. It is large amounts of nutrients in the water. But … our turtles aren’t going to turn into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and that’s important to know,” Van Ostenbridge said. “On that note that it’s not toxic. It’s not radioactive. It’s high in nutrients. … I understand the seriousness of putting nutrient rich water into the bay. … But I also want to make it clear to the media and people at home that the water on those beaches is clean. You can swim in it. … It is still pristine, beautiful and blue. … Nor is there any risk in the fish being caught in Tampa Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Department of Environmental Protection is sampling water daily in 11 locations, most of which are in Tampa Bay. The results of those tests were posted for the first time Tuesday morning. Most of those found the water to be acidic. Some samples contained chlorophyll. There was no information under the columns for ammonia, nitrogen and phosphate amounts.

A note on the page said, “A blank result indicates that the result for that analysis is still pending.”

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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