Officials in Florida on Sunday warned of a 20 foot wall of wastewater and ‘catastrophic flooding’ after a significant leak at a large pond threatened to burst a system that stores polluted water.
Governor Ron DeSantis took part in an aerial tour of the site and later held a press conference after more than 300 homes were evacuated near the large reservoir in the Tampa Bay area north of Bradenton Saturday.
He was joined by Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes, who warned: ‘So if you are in an evacuation area and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice and follow the orders.’
Gov. DeSantis confirmed authorities in the state are ‘trying to prevent a real catastrophic flood situation’ with 340 million gallons of wastewater that still could be released.
The governor said the water ‘is not radioactive’ but said that 100,000 bottles of drinking water have been shipped to the area. He also confirmed Sunday 316 homes have been evacuated and told those residents in the area to call 311 if they need help with emergency shelter.
Gov. DeSantis had already declared a state of emergency Saturday following the significant leak.
‘What we are looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,’ DeSantis said at a press conference after flying over the old Piney Point phosphate mine.
Residents who live around the Piney Point reservoir received an alert via text saying to leave the area immediately because the collapse was ‘imminent.’
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Noah Valenstein told the Tampa Bay Times the potential environmental disaster’s primary threat is to human health.
‘The imminent threat is public health,’ Valenstein told the local media. ‘We can take care of nutrients in the environment…the bay is resilient.’
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says a break was detected Friday in one of the walls of a 77-acre pond that has a depth of 25 feet and holds millions of gallons of water containing phosphorus and nitrogen from an old phosphate plant.
Officials brought in rocks and materials to plug the hole in the pond late Friday into Saturday, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
Hopes said at a press conference Saturday that the most pressing concern is that the water could flood the area, which he said was agricultural and low in population density.
‘We are talking about the potential of about 600 million gallons (2.3 billion liters) within a matter of seconds and minutes leaving that retention pool and going around the surrounding area,’ Hopes had said.
Workers have been pumping out thousands of gallons per minute at the site to bring the volume down in the event the pond bursts. Pumping the entire pond would take 10 to 12 days. Others have been working to chart the path to control how the water flows from the pond into the Tampa Bay.
DeSantis’ declaration of a state of emergency allocates more pumps and cranes to the area. The owner, HRK Holdings, did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
The pond where the leak was discovered is at the old Piney Point phosphate mine, sitting in a stack of phosphogypsum, a waste product from manufacturing fertilizer that is radioactive. It contains small amounts of naturally occurring radium and uranium, and the stacks can also release large concentrations of radon gas.
Hopes says that if the pond collapses, there is a risk it could destabilize the walls of other areas in the plant.
‘The pond is basically salt water. We saw ducks yesterday, there are snooks swimming in there. It’s sustaining wildlife. That’s not the case for the other two pools,’ he said, adding the wastewater in the other ponds would need to be treated to reduce ammonium content and other materials.
The executive order declaring the state of emergency said the breached structure has 480 million gallons of seawater mixed with process water and the embankment materials from the old fertilizer manufacturing plant.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried urged the governor in a letter to convene an emergency session of the state cabinet to discuss a plan, adding that this property has seen similar leaks in the past.
‘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.
In 2016, more than 200 million gallons of contaminated waste water from another fertilizer plant in central Florida leaked into one of the state’s main aquifers after a massive sinkhole opened up in a pond of a phosphogypsum stack.
There are at least 70 gypsum stacks in the United States and about 27 in Florida, mostly in the region of west-central Florida. The wastewater stored in the gypsum stacks can’t be seen from the ground as the piles surrounding the structure can go as high as 500 feet.
The site has long been considered ‘one of the biggest environmental threats in Florida history,’ according to the Florida Phoenix.
Piney Point’s previous owner, Mulberry Corp., had long declared bankruptcy and abandoned the plant, the Florida Phoenix reported.
HRK Holdings bought it for $4.3 million from Mulberry Corp. in 2006 as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
Since then, HRK has ‘been in and out of bankruptcy’ itself, the Florida Phoenix reported. HRK did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
Jaclyn Lopez, Florida Director of the Center for Biological Diversity told Bay 9 News: ‘This is nothing that should come as any surprise to officials that have been monitoring this phosphogypsum stack.
‘It has had a series and history of repeated leaks and breaches and discharges into Tampa Bay and this latest is the most alarming because it’s caused this public notice that’s forced the evacuation and the governor to declare a state of emergency.’
HRK Holdings LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after it suffered a leak in a gypsum stack liner in 2011 in Manatee County, Bradenton.com reported.
Another 2011 spill at Piney Point was twice as large as estimated as it leaked nearly 170 million gallons of seawater contaminated with heavy metals into Bishop Harbor and lower Tampa Bay, Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported at the time.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection told the outlet at the time that cadmium ‘was initially found in the water at a level more than nine times above the state safety standard.’
Axios reported that site manager Jeff Barath ‘appeared to fight back tears’ while addressing the leak with county commissioners about the latest leak.
‘There will likely be impacts in Tampa Bay,’ he told the commission.
The phosphate processing plant was first built in 1966 by the Borden Chemical Company and it was later owned by Royster Phosphates, WTSP reported.
The Mulberry Corp. bought it at some point in the 1990s and abandoned it in 2001, according to the outlet.