Evacuation notice near Piney Point after breach leads to concerns of uncontrolled wastewater release
Manatee County residents living near the former Piney Point fertilizer processing plant were evacuated Saturday because of serious concerns that a collapse of the walls holding hundreds of million gallons of polluted industrial wastewater at the complex by Tampa Bay could occur at any time.
Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Manatee County in response to the danger, and the Florida Highway Patrol closed part of U.S. 41 between the Hillsborough County Line and Moccasin Wallow Road as crews worked to release more water in order to relieve pressure on the containment system. Other roads such as Buckeye Road, Bud Rhoden Road, 113th Street and Oneill Road were also closed.
Crews from HRK Holdings, the site owner, as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Manatee County response teams have been releasing millions of gallons of the water into Tampa Bay for several days to reduce pressure on the phosphogypsum stack system, where a heavy plastic liner at one of the wastewater ponds sprang a leak in the past week.
The pond atop the stack contains a mix of processed wastewater from the former Piney Point fertilizer operation, sea water, dredging material, rainwater and seepage water. Officials say 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.
Efforts to relieve that pressure on the system, however, took a serious turn for the worse on Friday, prompting Manatee County officials to issue the initial evacuation notice that warned residents and businesses to clear the area.
On Saturday, Manatee County issued a second notice for the adjacent area after seeing that the situation was only growing more dire for the integrity of the containment system, Manatee County Acting Administrator Scott Hopes said during a press conference. The alert read: “Evacuate area NOW. Collapse of Piney Point Stack Imminent.”
About 6 p.m. Saturday, Manatee County expanded the zone affected by the evacuation order by about a half-mile to the east, and a mile to the south. There are some 316 homes within that zone, but Manatee County does not plan to open a public shelter, according to a press release.
Any residents within the evacuation zone that need assistance can call 3-1-1.
Hopes said the afternoon alert was sent in response to a breach in the east wall of one of the wastewater retention ponds at the facility.
“I think if you look at the current flow coming out of there, that’s a breach,” Hopes said. “So we have experienced that imminent breach. Now it is the degree of that breach.”
According to DEP records, workers found a “concentrated seepage” Friday on the eastern wall of the gypstack system. On Friday evening, the rate of water flowing out was estimated at 200 gallons per minute, prompting the initial evacuation notice. Hopes said Saturday that efforts to fortify the wall and plug the “breach” had failed.
“There was a combination of additional commercial equipment and county staff operating heavy equipment, dump trucks, front-end loaders, excavators to pile earthen material at the area of the breach, which was much smaller yesterday evening, and in addition brought in a substantial amount of rock that we were able to garner with Sen. Boyd’s help with Mosaic that had rocks stored at” nearby Port Manatee, Hopes said, referring to state Sen. Jim Boyd and the giant phosphate mining and fertilizer company Mosaic.
“The attempt was to plug the hole in the dam. When they reached a point where they were about to celebrate,” Hopes said, “then it blew through.”
Crews remained on scene into Saturday evening responding to the blowout, and there was an ongoing effort to bring more pumps and pipelines online to speed up the wastewater discharge into Tampa Bay. As of Saturday afternoon, Hopes said, the water was being released into the bay at a rate of at least 22,000 gallons per minute.
“What is being done now is basically to move as much water out of there in a controlled fashion. In addition we are looking at possibly flooding some of the Piney Point low areas, so that at least this material stays on Piney Point grounds,” Hopes said.
The initial evacuation notice was aimed at about 15 to 20 homes closest to the facility, as well as scattered businesses, officials said.
However there are a significant number of homes in the neighborhood overall, and on Saturday afternoon residents just outside the half-mile evacuation zone expressed confusion, concern and frustration over the situation.
“We are at .6 miles,” nearby resident Lorie Minallo said. “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.”
Farther down the road, Stacey Lecass said she had just moved to a new home in the neighborhood in January 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.”
The emergency alert asked residents who live to the south of the Piney Point facility to “evacuate the area immediately.”
Officials said residents in the vicinity should heed warnings about the potential threat of system failure, which Hopes could send a “sheet” of water offsite from the Piney Point property into the surrounding area.
“We are talking about the potential of about 600 million gallons, within a matter of seconds and minutes, leaving that retention pool and going around the surrounding area,” Hopes said. “Fortunately the population density is relatively low, extremely low, there is a lot of agriculture area and there is some residual borrow pits that still have capacity to absorb a bulk of that.”
Environmentalists issued a press release blaming the phosphate industry and government officials for the emergency.
“This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than 1 billion tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now. Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production.”
“It looks like this is turning out to be the ‘horror’ chapter of a long, terrible story of phosphate mining in Florida and beyond,” said Justin Bloom, Suncoast Waterkeeper founder and board member in the news release. “We hope the contamination is not as bad as we fear, but are preparing for significant damage to Tampa Bay and the communities that rely on this precious resource.”
“This entirely predictable catastrophe is a failure,” said Brooks Armstrong, president of People for Protecting Peace River. “And I’m not referring to the failure of the Piney Point stack’s structural integrity, but of the failure of federal, state and local governments to protect us from the unacceptable harms of the phosphate fertilizer industry.”
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