PALMETTO — Manatee County officials expanded the mandatory evacuation zone late Saturday in the face of the growing threat of a catastrophic discharge from the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
That didn’t seem to matter too much to Kenneth Rexford, 76, and his wife Elaine, 73. That evening, they said they had no plans to leave their home inside the evacuation zone in the Gillette Groves subdivision near Moccasin Wallow Road and S Tamiami Trail.
“We all know there’s a whole lot of water in there,” said Kenneth Rexford. “But it’s a mile and a quarter away from here. There’s a lot of hills and dips in between here to there, too.”
County officials expanded the evacuation to include another 300 or so homes because they feared a “large-scale breach.” If the wall holding back 480 million gallons of polluted wastewater reservoir collapses, it could send rushing water through crops, open spaces and neighborhoods on its way to the waters of Tampa Bay, where environmentalists fear it will harm marine life.
Officials warned about 11 a.m. that collapse was “imminent” and closed down S Tamiami Trail — aka U.S. 41 — between Manatee and Hillsborough counties. That afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency.
But despite those developments and warnings from county officials, most folks in Gillette Groves didn’t appear concerned — or hadn’t yet learned of the threat by 7 p.m.
The streets were quiet, with practically no cars leaving the subdivision. People walked their dogs or mowed their lawns. Children played in the subdivision’s small park.
Kenneth Rexford said the Piney Point phosphate plant has been a problem for so long now that residents have likely grown apathetic to recent developments. It has been an environmental threat for decades, and there have been polluted discharges in the past.
The couple said they knew about the reservoir when they moved into the neighborhood in 2010, but not the dangers its waters posed to wildlife and nearby homes.
In the decade since, Kenneth Rexford said he’s witnessed the hazards of the phosphate plant first-hand. The Vermont native said he was baffled that neither Manatee County nor state officials ever addressed what everyone knew was a potential disaster.
”If we survive this latest episode,” he said. “I want to see the government stop talking about the issue and start fixing it.”
Words started to get out more when Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies entered the subdivision about 8 p.m. to encourage residents to heed the evacuation order, and to shoo away outsiders — including a Tampa Bay Times reporter.