What is happening:
- A leak in the liner of the Piney Point reservoir caused a partial breach in one of the containment walls. If fully breached, the reservoir could release potentially hundreds of millions of gallons of highly acidic wastewater from the former Piney Point fertilizer processing plant into nearby homes and businesses.
- More than 300 hundred homes and multiple businesses in the area around Piney Point have been evacuated. State and local officials are coordinating efforts and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Saturday, April 3 for Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
- Some evacuated individuals have been provided with accommodation by Manatee County and the Red Cross. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office later announced that they were moving 345 inmates of the nearby Manatee County Jail in order to clear the ground floor of the facility in case of flooding. Although there were no prior plans to evacuate inmates, public outcry via protests and a call-in campaign prompted the Sheriff’s Office to act.
- Officials are diverting the wastewater into Tampa Bay. They aim to double the current 33 million gallons a day of wastewater being pumped into the estuary to close to 70 million gallons a day.
Why did it happen?
- According to Jennifer Borresen’s “A History of Piney Point” from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, attempts to clean up the site, with its “70 foot phosphogypsum stacks and 525 million gallons of highly contaminated acidic water” have faced multiple setbacks due to heavy rainfall several times since Mulberry Phosphates abandoned the site in 2001.
- The private property has changed owners multiple times, and government officials have continuously debated over proper solutions, as well as whether taxpayer funding should be used to clean up private property, but little progress has been made in the last decade.
- Threats of water contamination from this site have been well documented since at least 2003.
- The stacks at Piney Point were built with no liner underneath, allowing waste laden with radium and heavy metals to seep into the underground aquifer.
What are the implications?
- The wastewater meets water quality standards for marine waters, officials said, “with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen.”
- The exception of pH, phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia nitrogen are notable because releasing high amounts of these nutrients into Tampa Bay can feed red tide, which could lead to low oxygen levels that can kill fish.
- However, there are no threats to local drinking water.
Officials are closely monitoring the situation and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is setting up a reverse osmosis treatment system on the Piney Point property to clean up water.