Evacuation orders and most road closures around Piney Point lifted as short-term crisis eases
- All evacuation orders and most road closures around the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County were lifted.
- Nearly 140 people and 36 pets being sheltered in hotels can return home.
- Officials discussed efforts to store, clean and safely dispose of water from the site Tuesday.
All evacuation orders and most road closures around the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County were lifted Tuesday after local, state and federal officials determined there no longer is a threat of catastrophic flooding that puts lives at risk, a sign that the immediate crisis appears to be over, even as major environmental concerns remain.
“All evacuation orders effective immediately will be lifted,” said Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur, adding that the decision was based on modeling by the Army Corps of Engineers that showed much less flooding if a leak from a wastewater containment pond worsened.
Nearly 140 people and 36 pets being sheltered in hotels can return home, businesses can reopen and most roads in the area, including a section of U.S. 41 that had been closed, reopened.
“This is very much under control now,” said Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes.
The announcement was a major turning point in a crisis that has drawn national attention, with federal environmental regulators getting involved and Gov. Ron DeSantis declaring a state of emergency and visiting on Easter Sunday.
Yet while officials celebrated the determination that a breach in an earthen containment pond wall no longer would result in catastrophic flooding if it grows, there still is a daunting amount of work to be done on the property and urgent environmental issues impacting the entire Tampa Bay estuary to address.
That was underscored by state officials taking command of the response this week and working to mitigate the immediate and long-term environmental impacts.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said Tuesday that his agency’s “focus continues to be assisting on preventing an uncontrolled release of water.”
Officials discussed efforts to store, clean and safely dispose of water from the site Tuesday. They also are working to patch the pond’s leaking liner with a submersible.
“I think we’re going to see over the course of the next few days a decrease of what’s going in the bay,” Hopes said during the Manatee County Commission’s first meeting since the crisis began last week. “The goal is to keep as much of this onsite as possible.”
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Nutrient-rich industrial wastewater from the containment pond currently is being dumped into Tampa Bay to alleviate pressure on the breached wall, and there is even more polluted water in other ponds on the site.
“It is a big problem,” Hopes said. “The other ponds on that property, and the property in and of itself, is a problem. It is a wastewater compound. We do have everyone’s attention from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee, down to the regional level.”
The breached containment pond held roughly 480 million gallons before the discharges began, but was below 300 million gallons by Tuesday afternoon. There are more than two dozen pumps deployed to the reservoir, increasing the amount of water being released into the bay to roughly 23,500 gallons per minute.
Environmental advocates are concerned that the wastewater could feed harmful algae blooms, which have devastated the region’s environment in the past.
Even as they work to stop the wastewater dumping, authorities are formulating plans – likely funded by roughly $200 million in federal stimulus money – to close the phosphogypsum stack holding the water and dispose of all the water at the site permanently. Florida Senate leaders are pushing legislation to pay for the full Piney Point cleanup with money from the recent $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill.
The Manatee County commission also moved forward Tuesday with a key piece of the proposed long-term solution, advancing plans for a deep injection well near the site that would take treated wastewater from the property and inject it underground.
As elected leaders work to ensure Piney Point is finally dealt with once and for all after decades of inaction, there are a variety of methods being explored to manage wastewater on the property, including the possibility of shipping it in barges for deep well injection in Louisiana. Hopes also told the County Commission that he’s working with a company that can store 150 million gallons of water in portable tanks on the property.
And DEP is setting up a reverse osmosis treatment system on the Piney Point property to clean up some of the wastewater on the site, Hopes said. That system eventually will be used to clean the water before it is injected into the deep well.
“Right now, we’re also working with multiple innovative technologies; I know some of those were onsite yesterday figuring out logistics on where they could locate and where they could run pipes,” DEP Deputy Secretary John Truitt said Tuesday morning while briefing the Manatee commission. “Those technologies are other methods that they can use to treat the water to surface water standards, to again augment the removal of … the water from that system.”
Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh said that she had been against using a deep well injection to dispose of the water because she worried that polluted water could compromise the surrounding aquifer, but she changed her position because the water now will be treated.
“The main thing here is this water will be cleaned before it’s put down the well, so we do have a little added protection for our aquifer,” Baugh said.
Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge also said its important that the county do “everything we can in our power to treat the water before it goes down the well.”
Commissioners voted unanimously to have Hopes secure the services of ASRUS LLC to complete the design, permitting and services for a deep well injection site on county-owned property on Buckeye Road, and to secure a qualified contractor to build it.
A county official said it typically takes about 12 months to get a deep injection well approved, but permitting will be expedited because of the emergency situation. Regardless, the well likely won’t be ready to accept water for months.
In the meantime, officials are pursuing various solutions to avoid dumping wastewater into Tampa Bay and ensure that any water that is dumped is less harmful. There also are a number of water quality monitoring efforts occurring.
Truitt said DEP has multiple boats taking water samples. Manatee County also has a sampling program, as do surrounding counties. The data will be posted on the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s website.
“Right now, from what I’ve been told, there are not concerns on the water quality, that EPA and DEP have tested the water, they still feel it’s at pretty safe levels,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone statewide elected Democrat, said after touring the Piney Point property and speaking with scientists. “But of course, they’re going to continue to monitor it to make sure that nothing escalates.”
Fried said she has concerns about the deep well injection plans.
“I don’t think that is a solution at all and that there’s got to be a better way to clean this water – to either dredge it out, clean it and then, if they have to put it someplace else, at least the water is clean,” she said. “But dredging it and putting it in deep wells I don’t think is a solution.”
The crisis at Piney Point shined a spotlight on the long-festering problems at the former fertilizer site, which was built in the 1960s near the southern shoreline of Tampa Bay, had a previous owner that went bankrupt and has long been viewed as a potential environmental disaster.
State and federal agencies have adopted a new organizational structure and are now in charge of emergency response. Previously, first responders were relying on property owner HRK Holdings’ staff and third-party engineers hired by HRK to respond to the incident.
The new structure puts officials with the Florida Department of Emergency Management, the DEP and Manatee Public Safety in charge of a “unified command” between those agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“This is an important transition,” Hopes said.
The new response team evaluated the stability of the Piney Point containment walls and the potential flood risks, allowing for the evacuation orders and road closures to be lifted. Early on Monday there were reports that a thermal imaging drone detected a possible second breach at the facility; however, the new engineering team determined that it was “a particular type of vegetation” picked up by thermal imagery.
“Fortunately, it was a plant and not a leak,” Hopes said.
While controlled discharges into the bay continue, Hopes said controlled discharge from the breach at Piney Point has been kept on HRK Property and is being trucked by the Mosaic Company to Mosaic sites. If that wastewater had not been diverted, it would have spilled into Tampa Bay through Piney Point Creek. Hopes said wastewater from the breach is of greater concern because it has seeped through the phosphogypsum, giving it an opportunity to pick up dissolved solids from the hazardous material.
“All of the water that is breaching out of the side that is flowing in what now is somewhat of a canal,” Hopes said. “With the state’s assets and some of these pumps, it is being diverted around the stack then being pumped and lifted into another channel. It is going into – there is a 35 million gallon pond that has a liner in it that has not been used on the Piney Point site. So everything that is coming out of the bottom is staying on the site. That is not going into the bay.”
Hopes said there are additional efforts unfolding to bring storage tanks, tankers and barges into the response arsenal to address wastewater at the Piney Point site that is not leaking or being released. He said those details are being worked out by the DEP and related private parties such as the Mosaic Company.
“The aim of some of those efforts would be to ship that wastewater to the Louisiana coast to dispose of that wastewater in deep injection wells there,” Hopes said.
However, he said some of those ships, owned by Mosaic, are flagged in other countries, making it necessary to attain a federal waiver for the initiative.
“What is taking place right now is in preparation for those other holding ponds,” Hopes said. “That’s why you have this water treatment, because before that water leaves to go anywhere, it has to be treated because of its acidity and alkalinity, ammonia and nitrates.”