Florida Piney Point reservoir's 'imminent' overflow prompts evacuation order

Piney Point Reservoir

Florida reservoir in danger of collapse Credit Reuters

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Saturday after a significant leak at a large pond of wastewater threatened to flood roads and burst a system that stores polluted waters.

On Friday, the Manatee County Public Safety Department warned of an "imminent threat" of an uncontrolled release of wastewater from the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant in Palmetto after a breach was detected in one of the walls of the southern reservoir, which holds about 800 million gallons of water containing phosphorus and nitrogen.

"The pond is basically salt water". Now about 22,000 gallons of water are being discharged per minute, and Hopes said he expects the risk of collapse to decrease by Tuesday.

"We're talking about the potential of about [480] million gallons, within a matter of seconds and minutes, leaving that retention pool and going around the surrounding area", Scott Hopes, the Manatee County Administrator, said Saturday.

"The water was tested prior to discharge [and] the primary concern is nutrients", he said.

After the threat is mitigated, the wall will not be repaired, and all of the holding ponds on the property will be drained of water and likely filled, Hopes said during the press conference on Sunday.

Others have been working to chart the path to control how the water flows from the pond into the Tampa Bay.

Early Sunday, officials saw an increase of water leaking out, but Hopes says it seems to have plateaued. "We are not out of the critical area yet".

Mitigation efforts have prevented a full breach but the situation was constantly changing, emergency officials said.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
Florida Governor Ron De Santis warns of flood threat Credit Chris O'Meara AP

"The radiologicals are still below surface water discharge standards".

Calls to the owner of the site, HRK Holdings, for comments went unanswered Saturday and Sunday.

Phosphogypsum, a byproduct of fertilizer, is stored in the plant's two stacks, as is industry practice.

"The immediate evacuation of residents, disruption of families during Easter weekend, and potential environmental catastrophe requires the attention and action of Florida's statewide elected leadership", Fried said.

Fried details in her letter how previously-known poor maintenance by current and former phosphate mine owners have created a unsafe situation for local residents, communities and even state-managed lands and waters.

But the EPA says too much nitrogen in the wastewater causes algae to grow faster, leading to fish kills. The water is also contaminated with metals like cadmium.

There are at least 70 gypsum stacks in the USA and about 27 in Florida, mostly in the region of west-central Florida.

"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", Justin Bloom, founder of the Sarasota-based non-profit organization Suncoast Waterkeeper, said in a statement.

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