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Latest: No second breach found at Piney Point site, state says

Florida state and local leaders fear an "imminent" collapse of the retention pond at the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant in Manatee County.

PALMETTO, Fla. —

  • A possible second leak was investigated; the state said late Monday afternoon there is only one identified area.
  • Clearwater Marine Aquarium warns the situation could be the beginning of an environmental tragedy for manatees in the Tampa Bay area.
  • Pumps are being added to double the rate of wastewater flowing out of Piney Point.
  • Starting Monday, school buses won't make stops within the Piney Point evacuation zone, according to school leaders.
  • People who live in Manatee County can visit this link to see if they are affected by the current evacuation zone near the Piney Point reservoir.
  • A local state of emergency has been declared for Manatee County and parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Florida state and local leaders fear an "imminent" collapse of the retention pond at the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant in Manatee County.

People who live and work in the area are told to get out and stay away.

In addition to a "significant leak" at the bottom of the pool holding millions of gallons of water, several small breaches recently were found. The pool contains a mixture of process water, saltwater from the Port Manatee dredge project, rainfall and stormwater runoff.

Crews are working to relieve stress on the pond by releasing about 22,000 gallons a minute.

10 Tampa Bay is providing continuous coverage this week -- scroll down for the latest updates:

10:18 p.m. April 5: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state's highest-ranking Democrat, plans to hold a news conference at 12:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Manatee County Public Safety Building.

She earlier called upon Gov. Ron DeSantis to convene the Florida Cabinet to address the Piney Point emergency.

7:34 p.m. April 5: Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, announced the Senate will consider a budget amendment to fund the cleanup and closure of the Piney Point site, according to a news release.

It will be considered on Wednesday, April 7.

The state estimates it will cost $200 million for the full cleanup and restoration of the state, the release states. Funding may be sourced from money received by the American Rescue Plan, the recent COVID-19 stimulus package.

"This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen for too long. I have committed to Senator Boyd that the Senate will advocate for utilizing federal funding to ensure a full and complete clean up and restoration," Simpson said in a statement. "We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in 5, 10, or 20 years. This is exactly the kind of longstanding infrastructure issue we need to address with the nonrecurring federal funds our state will receive from the American Rescue Plan."

Simpson earlier told 10 Investigates the state would expect the site’s owner HRK Holdings to ultimately reimburse the costs to taxpayers for this "environmental tragedy."

5:08 p.m. April 5: There is only "one identified area where there is concentrated seepage from the east wall" at the Piney Point reservoir site, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Officials earlier said they were monitoring a second possible leak; the state announced that is not the case. The Florida DEP also said in its update that the uncontrolled discharge to Piney Point Creek has ceased. 

There are 26 pumps deployed to remove 35 million gallons of water per day.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
Area waterways near the breached Piney Point site in Manatee County, Florida.

3:45 p.m. April 5: Clearwater Marine Aquarium is warning the fallout from the wastewater situation at the former phosphate processing plant will likely impact Florida manatees.

“This contaminated water is being discharged just south of the TECO Power Plant which serves as a major warm water site for manatees,” wrote Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute’s Executive Director James “Buddy” Powell in a statement. “A discharge of this magnitude could have a major impact on the seagrass beds near Piney Point they use to feed. 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.”

RELATED: Wastewater flowing out of Piney Point could harm Tampa Bay area manatees

This year, the state's manatee deaths have tripled the five-year average. The aquarium says the loss of seagrass habitats is a leading factor in the deaths. 

Powell warns the situation in Manatee County may be the beginning of an environmental tragedy in Tampa Bay.

3:45 p.m. April 5: The Manatee County Public Safety Department says the county has helped relocate 102 people who were in the evacuation zone and get them into area hotels.

3 p.m. April 5: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says she has called for an emergency meeting of the Florida Cabinet regarding the emergency situation at the former phosphate processing plant.

"This is an all hands on deck situation to protect lives, property & our water resources," she wrote.

2:50 p.m. April 5: Officials say they are on their way to doubling the removal of wastewater threatening the retention pond's "imminent" collapse. 

By the end of the day Monday, around another 20 pumps will be added to the lineup of equipment working to move wastewater from the seepage site, according to the county leaders.

 “You can imagine that if we go from 35 million gallons a day to 100 million gallons a day, or more, pulling it out—you can see how within, probably, 48 hours, if all those flows continue, we will be at a situation where we will no longer have that risk of that full breach," County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes said.

RELATED: Pumps being added to double rate wastewater is flowing out of former phosphate plant and into Tampa Bay

1:08 p.m. April 5: 

Florida State Senate President Wilton Simpson tells 10 Investigates it could cost the state between $100 million and $200 million to clean up the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant in Manatee County.

The Pasco County Republican said it’s been a “concern” for many years and he’s interested in getting estimates so the state can appropriate funding to “completely stabilize it from now on.”

Simpson told 10 Investigates the state would expect the site’s owner HRK Holdings to ultimately reimburse the costs to taxpayers for this “environmental tragedy.”

He said he anticipates the state might have to sue to recover the cost of cleanup at Piney Point. 

“You normally don’t get to a potential catastrophe event without a few missteps,” Simpson said.

12:54 p.m. April 5: Director of Public Safety for Manatee County Jacob Saur says around 2 a.m. an infrared drone "identified a signature that could indicate a second breach" at Piney Point.

The Army Corps of Engineers and new engineers from the DEP are back out at the site and reassessing that determination. The county says it will provide more details once the assessment is complete.

12:18 p.m. April 5: What would a day of rain do to the compromised Piney Point reservoir? Our meteorologists did the math. 

The reservoir in question covers an area of 79 acres. When meteorologists talk about 1-inch of rain falling that reflects how it would be recorded in a rain gauge. 

That inch of rain is equal to 27,154 gallons of water over an area of one acre. If you multiply that figure by 79 (the area of the reservoir) that calculation reveals that the reservoir could see about 2.15 million gallons of water added.

RELATED: Here's what another inch of rain could mean for the Piney Point reservoir

10:18 a.m. April 5: Rep. Vern Buchanan is going to share an update on the ongoing efforts to prevent an imminent collapse of the Piney Point retention pond.

8:34 a.m. April 5: Manatee County's 311 call center has resumed taking calls from those in the evacuation zone.

6:07 a.m. April 5: 10 Tampa Bay Brightside reporter Thuy Lan Nguyen says with the additional equipment that was delivered to the site, the goal is to have the reservoir drained in four days.

5 a.m. April 5: Starting Monday, school buses won't make stops within the Piney Point evacuation zone, school leaders announced over the weekend.

If you have questions, school leaders ask you to call the SDMC Transportation department at 941-782-1287. 

You can find a list of impacted routes here.

RELATED: Manatee County Schools halts bus pick-ups inside Piney Point evacuation zone

7:00 p.m. April 4: The Manatee County Sheriff's Office says it is moving 345 inmates from the Manatee County Jail to an "undisclosed location" because of the breach at the Piney Point reservoir. The prison is within the mandatory evacuation zone

A spokesperson with the sheriff's office said the remaining 721 inmates at the prison will be moved to the upper level of the facility as a precaution. The sheriff's office says it's not revealing the inmates' location because of "security purposes." 

The agency said in a "worst-case scenario," i.e. a full uncontrolled breach of the reservoir, about a foot of water would impact the jail.  

5:30 p.m. April 4: The 311 call center in Manatee County closed after calls "slowed to a crawl," local leaders say. It will reopen at 8 a.m. Monday.

Where is the evacuation zone?

The evacuation zone around the breached Piney Point reservoir includes about 316 homes, according to Manatee County leaders. 

On Saturday, the county expanded  U.S. 41's closure a half-mile west and one mile southwest to Moccasin Wallow Road. It also expands south from Buckeye Road to Moccasin Wallow Road. 

Moccasin Wallow Road will be closed west of 38th Avenue East. 

People who live in Manatee County can visit this link to see if they are affected by the current evacuation zone near the Piney Point reservoir.

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