Floridians Return to Homes Around Wastewater Pond After Leak

Despite an evacuation order being lifted, residents in the Tampa Bay area still worry about the lingering effects of the contaminated water breach.

This satellite image from Monday shows a breach in a retaining pond at the 77-acre Piney Point reservoir in Manatee County, Fla. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP)

BRADENTON, Fla. (CN) — Hundreds of Florida residents returned to their homes Tuesday afternoon after federal and state officials shored up a collapsing wastewater reservoir that threatened to deluge a neighborhood with a catastrophic flood of contaminated water.

Local officials lifted a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday, saying the situation was under control. But the rest of the Tampa Bay area remained anxious over how the dumping of hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater in the bay would affect the area.

More than 300 people were evacuated from the Piney Point area of Manatee County, about 45 miles south of Tampa, over Easter weekend. The 77-acre pond sits on an abandoned phosphate mine and holds wastewater, a by-product from fertilizer manufacturing.

A map shows the Piney Point facility pond that is leaking contaminated water.

Last week, state officials discovered a tear in the pond’s plastic lining that allowed water to push against a berm wall, leading to the evacuations. To stave off a potentially catastrophic collapse of the pond’s walls, engineers are pumping out all the wastewater into Tampa Bay.

Those are the same waters that second-generation fisherman Captain Justin Moore relies on for a living.

“Here’s the deal,” Moore said during a charter trip on Tuesday. “The water is clear seven miles out. However within three to five miles, that water is turning color and the fish … there’s not activity at all.”

The breached 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.

Environmentalists, biologists and fishermen worry that the increased levels of those compounds could lead to harmful algae blooms and fish kills.

“It could not be a worse scenario, with summer coming up, with water temperatures going up, going into hurricane season,” Moore said. “If we do not start significant changes, we will not have anything left. And we already have done enough damage.”

In announcing that the evacuation order had been lifted, county officials breathed a sigh of relief that an anticipated second breach did not occur that potentially would have flooded the surrounding neighborhood.

“We’re now ending our fifth day since learning of a breach at the site, and I am in awe over the state, federal and local cooperation to ensure the safety of our residents,” said Manatee County Commission Chairman Vanessa Baugh. “I am so pleased that the interruption to life as usual in North Manatee is minimal and that our residents and business owners can return safely to the area tonight.”

County Administrator Scott Hopes added during the press conference, “I know I’m going to sleep better. Those residents that were displaced, we’re glad it was short lived. We’ve dramatically reduced the risk in a significant way.”

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