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Another Piney Point wastewater release is on the table, DEP says

Recent rainstorms have the state concerned that the facility may overflow.

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Editor's note: The video above is from Aug. 17.

It's been approximately four months since more than 200 million gallons of untreated wastewater from the former Piney Point phosphate mining facility was discharged into Tampa Bay over fears of an imminent collapse. Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, along with the facility's property managers, since then have worked to manage the water levels of Piney Point's reservoirs.

However, recent summertime rainstorms have the state concerned that the facility may overflow, possibly prompting another wastewater release. As of Tuesday, Piney Point has received 24.4 inches of rain, and the state expects another 10 inches by the end of September. 

DEP says the facility can only hold 11 more inches of rainfall. 

"With additional significant rain volumes expected as we continue into the rainy season, water levels at the site will likely need to be lowered to prevent the overtopping of on-site compartment areas into the surrounding areas, including Bishop Harbor (an Outstanding Florida Water), which could include controlled discharges," DEP wrote. 

This time, the state agency says, the water that could be released will be treated. Florida says contractors have been traveling to Piney Point to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water.

Still, scientists say even if the discharged water is treated, any additional nutrient pollution to Tampa Bay will add more stress to a system that has already received so much nitrogen earlier in the year and could help fuel future algae blooms.

"It's hard to celebrate because it's still additional nutrient load in a year where we've ostensibly doubled the nitrogen load to lower Tampa Bay," said Maya Burke, the assistant director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

Burke added that it's not out of the ordinary for additional releases to happen. She said history has shown these releases happen on and off over the course of several months and sometimes even years. 

Earlier this month, the state asked for an emergency hearing of its lawsuit against Piney Point's property managers, HRK Holdings. The lawsuit would have a Manatee County judge appoint a receiver to act as a third party that will oversee the closure of the facility.

As of Tuesday, FDEP says around 259 million gallons of water is currently being held inside the Piney Point reservoir. That water consists of a mixture of phosphogypsum, a radioactive byproduct of phosphate mining, and seawater. If it overflows, the state says Bishop Harbor will be affected.

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