State of emergency declared near former phosphate mine pond

April 6, 2021

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Manatee County as crews continued to work to prevent a collapse of a tailings pond at an old phosphate mine that began leaking water in March.

NPR reported that emergency crews are using pumps and vacuum trucks to drain a leaking wastewater reservoir in an effort to prevent a full-fledged breach that officials said could unleash a "20-foot wall of water."

The leak is at Piney Point, a long-abandoned phosphate plant in the Tampa Bay area. Workers are removing millions of gallons of water from the reservoir each day to reduce pressure on its liner.

“What we’re looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis said. Officials said Monday that a drone may have identified a second breach overnight; engineers evacuated the site but have since returned to continue their assessment.

The leak at the former fertilizer manufacturing facility and threat of an uncontrolled breach have prompted a multi-agency response at the state and federal level. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deployed an on-scene coordinator on Sunday, for example, and an Army Corps of Engineers team arrived at the site Monday.

Piney Point closed 20 years ago when its owners declared bankruptcy, Steve Newborn of member station WUSF told NPR. It is now owned by a company called HRK Holdings and still stores industrial byproducts including polluted water and stacks of phosphogypsum — a waste product that emits radioactive gas, according to the EPA.

HRK reported on March 26 that process water was bypassing the wastewater management system at Piney Point, according to Protecting Florida Together, a state-run website focused on water quality issues. Officials identified a leak in a containment wall that put the structure at risk of collapsing.

DeSantis said a "controlled release" began on March 30 at the urging of engineers, and efforts have averaged about 35 million gallons per day.
Water is being drawn by pumps from the top of the 79-acre pond to Tampa Bay, according to the county. Officials said on Sunday that the Florida National Guard was dropping off extra pumps to increase the volume of water being pumped out in addition to the 10 vacuum trucks and 20 pumps already deployed.

Acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said Monday that the additional pumps are expected to come online by the end of the day and more than double the volume of water being pumped out to between 75 million and 100 million gallons per day.

There were about 480 million gallons in the impacted area of the reservoir on March 26, according to Protecting Florida Together. By Monday, Hopes said that number was "probably just shy of 300 million."

DeSantis said the water being discharged is not radioactive, describing it as saltwater from a dredging project "mixed with legacy process water and stormwater runoff." It meets water quality standards for marine waters, officials said, "with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen."

While the state Department of Environmental Protection is monitoring the water to capture any environmental impacts, DeSantis stressed on Sunday that officials are most immediately concerned with the risk to local residents.

"Public health and safety is the priority," DeSantis said. "Obviously we want to protect that in a way that minimizes any of the environmental impacts, but the goal is to ensure the integrity of the stack system as quickly as possible in order to minimize impacts to local residents and to prevent an uncontrolled discharge."

 

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