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US 41 shut down near Piney Point leak over 'imminent' threat wastewater could gush from collapse

A full breach is possible at a retention pond holding between 700 and 800 million gallons of water in Manatee County, according to the acting county administrator.

PALMETTO, Fla. — Saturday afternoon, Manatee County officials expanded its mandatory evacuation order around the breached Piney Point reservoir. 

In a release, the county says U.S. 41's closure has been expanded a half-mile west and one-mile southwest south from Buckeye Road to Moccasin Wallow Road. Moccasin Wallow Road will be closed west of 38th Avenue East.

The county says there are 316 households within the evacuation area.

U.S. 41 is also shut down at 113th Street East in Manatee County and College Avenue in Hillsborough County, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
People living near the area of the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack are asked to evacuate the area.

RELATED: Live updates: 'Complete evacuation' ordered near Piney Point reservoir site

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Manatee County issued not one – but two – emergency evacuation notices Friday evening for people living and working near the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant in Palmetto.

The first evacuation alert went to people within a half-mile radius of the site, with the second going to those living up to one mile north. The alerts warned of an "imminent uncontrolled release of wastewater.”

About 15-20 homes are in the evacuation zone, along with a few businesses. Evacuation messages were sent via cell phones, landlines and – in some cases – delivered in person.

A 3-1-1 call center was activated to field questions from people living in the area.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
People living near the area of the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack are asked to evacuate the area.

Dr. Scott Hopes, who was just confirmed as Manatee’s acting county administrator on Thursday, estimated it could be 10-12 days before the situation has stabilized and there is no longer an imminent danger.

The Manatee County Commission voted unanimously Thursday to declare a state of emergency following word of a leak that could potentially cause a collapse. As the situation worsened Friday, commissioners gathered for an emergency meeting.

According to the county, several small breaches were found Friday – in addition to a “significant leak” at the bottom of a retention pond that contains a mixture of process water, saltwater from the Port Manatee dredge project, rainfall, and stormwater runoff. While you would not want to drink or swim in the wastewater, local leaders say the retention pool in question is not expected to be toxic in the same way that other parts of the defunct plant are.

“The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, Total Phosphorus, Total Nitrogen and Total Ammonia Nitrogen,” a Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson wrote in an email. “It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic.”

Nonetheless, as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune pointed out last month, that wastewater – with its heightened levels of phosphorus and nitrogen – is still raising alarms with some environmentalists. It's being released through the Port of Manatee and flowing into Tampa Bay, prompting worries about its potential impact on marine life and even red tide.

Even if those concerns didn't exist, the leaks would still be problematic because a full breach is not impossible. Since that particular retention area holds somewhere between 700 and 800 million gallons, there would be an immediate risk to anyone nearby if a total breach were to occur.

To prevent that, the county is using the piping system from the port dredging – but reversing the flow. Approximately 22,000 gallons a minute are flowing out of the main retention pond to relieve stress.

"The hope is that with the flow rate coming out of the siphon pipes, we can rapidly deplete the water and the pressure and avoid a full breach," Hopes said.

Credit: Drone 10

In the meantime, precautions are being taken. Construction equipment has been moved in to help, and the sheriff’s office is putting sandbags around a gas processing plant located just to the south.

Engineers are working to back up the support of the southeast wall of the retention pond to keep water from gushing out.

A FedEx facility located at the edge of the evacuation area is being allowed to continue operating for now, but the county says it is confident the business would be able to evacuate in time if a total breach were to happen.

As of Friday night, leaders said there were no immediate concerns about drinking water. State officials continue to test the water in the region.

A section of Buckeye Road is closed until further notice.

The Borden Chemical Company first built the now-closed phosphate processing plant in 1966. It was later owned by Royster Phosphates, Inc., then purchased by the Mulberry Corporation in the 90s.

It was abandoned in 2001 when Mulberry declared bankruptcy.

Today, it is owned by HRK Holdings, and Florida’s Department of Environmental protection has oversight.

For the last 20 years, however, there have been debates over how to safely drain the phosphogypsum stacks on the property. Phosphogypsum is a fertilizer manufacturing by-product that is traditionally considered more radioactive than original phosphate rock.

“My congressional district faces a potential environmental nightmare that requires immediate federal attention,” Congressman Vern Buchanan wrote in October 2020. “Contaminated water from a long-abandoned phosphate processing plant is threatening to leak into our region's water supply. Federal oversight is urgently needed to ensure the safe management and disposal of the contaminated water and prevent an environmental disaster.”

Waste material is stored in water-covered stacks, and Piney Point’s ponds had already been approaching their maximum capacity – an issue made worse by rainfall.

Buchanan’s office said a 2019 study found the former plant might only be two years away from reaching capacity. Now, in 2021, the problem is confronting the community head-on.

“This is extremely serious,” Buchanan wrote in a statement Friday. “The state and the county need to work together and resolve this as quickly and safely as possible.”

He’s not the only lawmaker who believes a solution needs to be found – and fast.

“This has got to end. We have got to stop and clean this property up,” Florida House Rep. Will Robinson said during a Friday news conference.

Robinson and Hopes are among the growing chorus of voices who say it is time to end the 20-year debate over what to do with the property and find a permanent waste removal solution once and for all.

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