Florida Officials Scramble to Prevent Collapse of Wastewater Pond Walls

Environmentalists say a leak from the pond could devastate the Tampa Bay area for decades.

This aerial photo shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine in Bradenton, Fla., on Saturday. (Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald via AP)

BRADENTON, Fla. (CN) — Florida officials kept evacuation orders in place on Monday for residents near a large wastewater pond over fears that its walls could collapse and send a 20-foot wall of water into nearby neighborhoods.

More than 300 people have been evacuated from the Piney Point area of Manatee County, about 45 miles south of Tampa. The 77-acre pond sits on an abandoned phosphate mine and contains hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater, a by-product from fertilizer manufacturing.

Last week, state officials discovered a tear in the pond’s plastic lining that allowed water to push against a berm wall, leading to evacuations over the weekend. Early Monday morning, a drone discovered what looks like a second breach of the reservoir.

To stave off a potentially catastrophic collapse of the pond’s walls, engineers are pumping out all the wastewater into Tampa Bay.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis visited the area on Sunday and declared a state of emergency. On Monday, GOP Congressman Vern Buchanan toured the area by helicopter along with officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is very concerning to me,” Buchanan said at a press conference. “I know they are working on it, but to see the water spewing out into the bay, it looks pretty contaminated to me.”

“I am concerned about the threat to public safety, homes and businesses,” the congressman added. “I am concerned a lot about the marine life. … When I see water flowing into Tampa Bay, frankly, it makes me sick.”

Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said pumps are draining the pond by about 35 million gallons per day. By Monday evening, Hopes said they should have the capacity to pump out up to 100 million gallons a day. The reservoir still holds an estimated 300 million gallons of wastewater.

“This has become a very focused local, state and national issue,” Hopes said.

In addition to the evacuation of hundreds of homes, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office also relocated 267 inmates from a nearby jail. A major highway near the pond has been closed.

The pond sits in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing that is radioactive.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the acidic pond water is not toxic, but contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.

Environmental groups and biologists worry the wastewater could lead to harmful algae blooms and fish kills.

“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, founder of Suncoast Waterkeeper. “We hope the contamination is not as bad as we fear, but we are preparing for significant damage to Tampa Bay and the communities that rely on this precious resource.”

James Powell, executive director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, said the wastewater discharge is just south of a nearby power plant that attracts hundreds of manatees to its warm waters.

“A discharge of this magnitude could have a major impact on the seagrass beds near Piney Point they use to feed,” Powell said. “At this point we don’t know what the outcome may be, but it could cause those grasses to die off or have toxicity levels that could potentially be harmful to manatees. The implications of this breach may likely last for decades.”

Florida has 24 other such ponds scattered around the state. For decades, environmentalists have complained about the phosphate mining industry’s effect on the state’s ecosystems.

“This entirely predictable catastrophe is a failure,” said Brooks Armstrong, president of People for Protecting Peace River, in a statement. “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.”

The land is owned by HRK Holdings, which bought the site after a phosphate mining company abandoned the property for decades. HRK, which specializes in bulk storage of fertilizer and industrial materials, did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Florida DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said the company will be held “accountable for this issue through enforcement action.”

“It is clear that this facility must be closed,” he said.

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