PALMETTO — Manatee County officials told people who live around an old phosphate plant property to evacuate Friday due to fears that a leak in a large reservoir of wastewater could cause a collapse and sudden flood.
“What has been occurring in the past 12 hours is there are a number of small breaches in addition to what we believe is a significant leak at the bottom of the retention pond,” said County Administrator Scott Hopes.
The county issued evacuation orders for a half-mile area south of Buckeye Road, off U.S. 41., and another zone stretching north to Airport Manatee 48X, not far from the Hillsborough County line. The orders encompass about 15 to 20 homes, said Manatee Public Safety Director Jacob Saur. Officials are also working to place sandbags around an adjacent gas processing facility, Hopes said.
The old Piney Point phosphate plant grounds hold stacks of phosphogypsum, which is regulated because of its radioactivity, and elevated ponds of polluted water. One of those reservoirs appears to have sprung a leak last week, according to property owner HRK Holdings. Environmental regulators have warned that the leaking water could cause dikes or berms to burst under pressure, prompting a catastrophic discharge.
Gypsum stacks are squat berms that rise above the surrounding landscape; the material is a byproduct of the fertilizer industry.
The evacuation notice Friday came shortly after employees on the property reported “a breakout of seepage” in the wall of a stack around the reservoir about 4 p.m., according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
County officials were working to set up a shelter with the American Red Cross. Commissioners had declared a local state of emergency on Thursday. The emergency operations center was partially activated by Friday night.
The reservoir thought to be at the center of the problem held roughly 480 million gallons of wastewater before HRK Holdings began discharging some of it to Port Manatee on Tampa Bay this week, records show. At least 25 million gallons of the water, containing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, had been discharged by early Thursday — prompting fears of algal blooms that could harm marine life in Tampa Bay.
Of that water, a state environmental spokeswoman wrote: “It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be (a) concern, nor is it expected to be toxic.”
“I wouldn’t drink it,” Hopes said.
The wastewater was being dumped to the bay through Port Manatee at a rate of about 22,000 gallons per minute by Friday night, he said. At that flow, he estimated, the entire pond could be emptied in about 10 to 12 days. It is not clear when the evacuation orders will end. Records show Mosaic Fertilizer, L.L.C. is now transporting wastewater from the plant to its facilities.
Mike Kelley, an outside engineer working with HRK Holdings, told Manatee commissioners Thursday that the discharges are needed because an uncontrolled release remains a “real possibility.” Employees had not yet confirmed the source of the leak and were trying to relieve pressure on the system. The engineer said he suspects a tear in the seam of a plastic lining in the reservoir is to blame. If that is the case, and the tear is at the bottom of the liner, all the water might have to be sent away.
Kelley said a collapse and sudden discharge of wastewater could damage U.S. 41 and several nearby properties. HRK Holdings operates the site as a terminal called Eastport, providing storage and leased space for industrial operations.
County officials said they are most concerned about residents and the neighboring gas business. They are allowing a FedEx center in the area to keep operating.
State Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said about 7 p.m. he had spoken with a Department of Environmental Protection deputy secretary earlier and believed the situation was under control.
“It’s not an imminent threat, we don’t think, to the area but taking obviously precautionary plans to make sure everybody’s safe and secure,” Boyd said. “If the county is telling them to (evacuate), then certainly they ought to listen to those recommendations.”
The old Piney Point phosphate plant has threatened Tampa Bay with the prospect of an environmental disaster for decades. Polluted discharges have flowed from the property before.
Glenn Compton, who leads the local environmental advocacy organization ManaSota-88, said he has tracked the risks since about 1980.
“We’ve certainly had similar concerns in the past but I think that this one is magnified because now we have the owners of the stack admitting that there’s a real possibility of a total collapse,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll be able to contain as much of the wastewater coming off the site as possible.”
Jeff Barath, a manager for HRK Holdings, fought tears Thursday as he briefed Manatee commissioners about the incident.
“This is my community, too,” he said. “And we are doing everything possible to prevent a true catastrophe, which would be the failure of that stack system.”
Elected officials from Manatee are looking to secure state funding for an injection well that would put wastewater from the site deep underground. They say they intend to close the wastewater ponds and gypsum stacks for good, after decades of lingering trouble.
“This quarter century debate on what to do with this property needs to come to an end,” said state Rep. William Cloud Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton, on Friday night. “This property has to be finally cleaned up so we can get this off the minds of our residents.”
For more on the leak, read here.
Times staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.