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Toxic water leak threatens Gulf of Mexico, officials warn of flood risk in Manatee County

Piney Point Reservoir in Manatee County at risk of failing, Gov. DeSantis issues state of emergency for Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Apr 4, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill which will place new restrictions on voting. The League of Women Voters of Florida is suing to overturn the law. / File photo by Nathan Mayberg

An environmental catastrophe involving a leak at a defunct phosphorus plant in Manatee County is threatening to unload hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic water into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico and flood the surrounding area.

More than 300 homes have been evacuated over the weekend near the Eastport Terminal Facility while 33 million gallons a day of wastewater filled with nitrogen, phosphorus and potentially other chemicals is deposited into Port Manatee.

“We are trying to prevent and respond to if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” Governor Ron DeSantis said at a news conference on Sunday.

“The water quality issues that are flowing from this for us is less than everybody’s health and safety,” he said. “Public health and safety is the top priority.”

DeSantis said the aim is to minimize environmental impacts and prevent an uncontrolled discharge into Port Manatee.

There have been controlled discharges of 33 million gallons per day of the wastewater released since March 30 in order to prevent massive flooding.

The Division of Emergency Management has deployed 20 pumps to the area and 10 vacuum trucks.

The water is “primarily saltwater from the Port Manatee dredged project mixed with legacy processed water and stormwater runoff,” DeSantis said.

“It’s not radioactive,” he said. “The primary concern is nutrients,” DeSantis said.

“The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception primarily of the phosphorus and nitrogen,” DeSantis said.

More than 100,000 bottles of water are being sent to Manatee County. The American Red Cross is putting families up in hotels.

HRK Holdings L.L.C., who is the responsible entity for the operation of the phosphogypsum stacks at Eastport Terminal facility, “will be held accountable,” DeSantis said.

The plant was built in the 1960’s but was abandoned approximately 20 years ago after the company that controlled the site went out of business. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection took over the site before HRK Holdings LLC purchased the property from the State of Florida in 2006.

ManaSota-88, a Florida health and environmental nonprofit organization dating back to 1968 which was formed in part to monitor the environmental impact at the Piney Point plant, blames decisions by Manatee County and the state in the years since for worsening the situation.

The organization issued the following statement on its website:

“The gyp stacks at Piney Point have been mismanaged for decades. The current crisis can be traced back to the absurd 2006 decision to allow dredged material from Port Manatee to be placed into one of the gyp stacks at Piney Point, something the stack was never designed for, and should have never been allowed.

Predictably, a tear in the gyp stack liner in 2011 leaked millions of gallons a day of tainted water for weeks. The runoff, contaminated with the heavy metal, cadmium, as well as high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, made its way to Bishop Harbor, part of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Buffer Preserve. Bishop Harbor received more pollution in that one year then it should have received in its entire existence.

The dredging of Berth 12 at Port Manatee has been an environmental disaster and the pumping of the dredged material from the Port to Piney Point has led to another environmental disaster.

Yet the current crisis at Piney Point was avoidable. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the agency mainly responsible for permitting the dredge material from Port Manatee to be dumped into the Piney Point stack, has failed to protect the environment from the adverse impacts of Piney Point, and Manatee County Commissioners have stood by for decades with a blind eye and let it happen.

The Manatee County Commission originally approved land use changes in the 1960’s allowing for the construction of a fertilizer plant and gyp stacks at Piney Point, arguably the worst land use decision ever made in Manatee County’s history. What was falsely promoted as a benefit to the community has ended up being a tremendous cost to the public’s health, environment and taxpayers of Manatee County and Florida.”

According to ManaSota-88, HRK Holdings LLC recently reported to the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners that 750 million gallons of water at the Piney Point Reservoir is operating at about 92 percent capacity. The site can only handle about 19 more inches of rainfall.

“Although there are no long-term plans to get rid of the contaminated water, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, HRK Holdings, and a few of the Manatee County Commissioners appear to subscribe to the theory that the solution to pollution is injection. It is assumed the Piney Point effluent would migrate to the Gulf of Mexico, however, because there are no long-term plans to filter the wastewater, the necessary high-pressure injection will likely create new paths of migration,” the organization stated on its website.

Glenn Compton, director of ManaSota-88, said a collapse of all three of the phosphogypsum stacks at the plant would be unprecedented in the amount of such waste being leaked into a waterbody. He believes, contrary to statements made by the governor, that the waste in the stacks, is radioactive.

Manatee County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes said the plan is to deplete the holding ponds of the wastewater, filling the ponds and cap them. The worst case scenario if the retention pond is breached would be a 20-foot wall of wastewater flooding the area, he said.

Compton said the cost of solving the issue could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Compton said the group’s founders called itself ManaSota-88 with the hope it would be able to find solutions to the environmental issues caused by the phosphorus plant by 1988, thought its goals have been at odds with governmental policy.

Compton expects significant algae blooms, fish kills and red tide to follow the environmental disaster. He expects the impacts of the pollution to be felt throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

“This will effect the entire Tampa Bay region and well into the Gulf of Mexico,” Compton said.