PALMETTO — Acting Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes spent Easter Sunday feeling “much more comfortable today than we were yesterday” about the imminent threat of a reservoir at the former Piney Point phosphate plant collapsing and sending a 20-foot wall of wastewater crashing down on surrounding homes and businesses.
At a Sunday afternoon press conference, Manatee County officials reported “no news was good news.” Vanessa Baugh, chairwoman of the Manatee County Commission, assured residents that their drinking water was safe, saying, “There is no threat to our primary source of drinking water, Lake Manatee.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was on site for an earlier news conference just outside the evacuation zone, where he and county officials laid out their plan to prevent the 77-acre wastewater pond from total collapse after a plastic lining is believed to have torn last week. The reservoir sits among phosphogypsum stacks — high berms made of a substance monitored for its radioactivity.
Millions of gallons of wastewater that remain in the reservoir will be pumped out into Port Manatee or other “large storage containers” coming in from as far away as Wyoming as quickly as possible, Hopes said.
“We’re not out of the critical area yet,” he said.
“All of the models show it would take less than an hour for it to drain out in as high as a 20-foot wall of water,” Hopes said. “So, if you’re in an evacuation area and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice and follow the orders on mymanatee.org and 311.”
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein tried to dispel rumors that the water being released could be “radioactive.” Three big ponds sit in the Piney Point gypsum stack complex, Valenstein said, and the one with the leaking liner is full of — mainly — saltwater dumped there nearly 10 years ago when the county dredged Port Manatee to allow bigger ships to pass through. But it also contains polluted water left by the fertilizer industry, high in phosphorus and nitrogen, the state has said, in addition to rainwater.
Manatee County officials say the water itself is about “as acidic as a cup of coffee,” and the biggest risk to the public is a potential deluge if the structure suddenly crumbled. The other two ponds on the site are potentially even more contaminated, according to the county.
Regulators say they are hopeful a collapse of the leaking pond would not wash out the other two, potentially spewing a cocktail of contaminated waste into surrounding streams and wetlands. Together, all three reservoirs present a potential spill of hundreds of millions of gallons of water.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection detected a break in a wall around one of the site’s 25-foot-deep wastewater ponds Friday, officials said. Attempts to plug the leak with rocks and other materials Friday into Saturday were unsuccessful, Hopes said, and when engineers examined the massive structure they agreed it was in danger of a sudden, imminent collapse.
“A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally, signifying that structure collapse could occur at any time, and so staff and personnel were evacuated from the site,” said Jacob Saur, the county’s director of public safety.
By Sunday afternoon, the county had placed at least 30 people and pets in temporary, COVID-compliant shelters, Saur said – mainly rooms in local hotels. Roughly 316 families are believed to be living inside the mandatory evacuation zone, Saur said.
At a 2 p.m. news conference, Hopes said the water remaining was now below 300 million gallons. As of last week, 480 million gallons were in the leaking reservoir.
The governor’s announced “state of emergency” also includes parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough as the state continues to “ensure that all state resources are available for response and recovery,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis and others said they were more worried about the possibility of “catastrophic flooding” and a threat to residents than they were about the impact the released wastewater runoff could have on the environment. Advocates for water quality in the bay say nutrients from the polluted wastewater discharges, particularly nitrogen, could support harmful algal blooms and eventually lead to fish kills.
“The water quality issues that are flowing from this, for us is less than the risk of everyone’s health and safety, particularly folks who may live in the area,” DeSantis said. “Obviously we want to protect public health and safety in a way that minimizes any of the environmental impacts, but the goal is to ensure the integrity of the stack system as quickly as possible in order to minimize impacts to local residents and to prevent an uncontrolled discharge.”
Inside the evacuation zone are miles of farmland, pastures and the Manatee County jail. Sheriff Rick Wells said he’s moving about 345 inmates from the jail’s first floor to another location that he declined to disclose while they were still being relocated. The remaining inmates and staff on the first floor will be moved to the second floor, along with medical equipment, he said. There were 1,063 inmates in the jail Sunday.
Also in the flood zone is a natural gas plant that provides electricity to millions of Manatee County residents.
The county’s “controlled discharge” of the water began March 30 and hasn’t stopped. By Sunday, the county was pumping an average of about 35 million gallons of water out of the cracking culvert each day, DeSantis said. By Sunday evening, Department of Environmental Protection officials said they expected 20 more pumps, a host of cranes and 10 “vacuum trucks” to arrive at Piney Point to speed up the process. Initially, the county estimated it could take as long as 10 days to drain the reservoir completely but Hopes said after Sunday’s press conference that with reinforcements that timeline could shrink to about four or five days.
No matter what happens, DeSantis said Sunday the state will ensure that the businesses and individuals responsible for the Piney Point breach “will be held accountable.”
“I want to be clear that while our foremost concern is ensuring the safety of the community, our administration is dedicated to full enforcement of any damages to our state’s resources and holding the company, HRK, accountable for this event,” DeSantis said.
Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Baugh addressed “a lot of rumors and misinformation” about the spill in an afternoon press conference.
In addition to the public drinking supply being safe, she said, personal groundwater wells at homes within the evacuation area also shouldn’t be affected by the massive release from the plant.
“If a breach occurs, we believe that the surface layers of dirt and earth will safely filter any harmful nutrients near the surface,” Baugh said.
Thousands of pallets of bottled water have already been distributed to those living and working within the evacuation zone, which spans over a mile from the center of the plant.
Teams are continuing to work on site at Piney Point, installing new pumps and equipment and conducting ongoing testing on water samples from the spillage. The county is conducting flyovers of the site every hour with drone cameras able to detect even small-scale changes in the supporting structure, Saur said.
If there is a breach, it’s likely to happen on the eastern or southeastern wall, Hopes said. Workers at the site noticed an increase in the volume of water gushing from the cracked structure at about 3 a.m. Sunday morning, he said, but since then the pressure seems to have stabilized, if not decreased.
“So I guess Manatee County now has a waterfall, and we also have a canyon,” Hopes quipped. “But it’s under control.”
Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.