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Manatee plant potential collapse: What you need to know

Gov. DeSantis, state, local officials addressed the situation at Piney Point.
Published Apr. 4
Updated Apr. 4

At a Sunday afternoon press conference, Manatee County officials reported “no news was good news” from the Piney Point reservoir leak.

Vanessa Baugh, chairman of the Manatee County Commission, said that “we have thankfully avoided an uncontrolled breach.”

Baugh assured county residents that their drinking water was safe, saying, “There is no threat to our primary source of drinking water Lake Manatee.”

Dr. Scott Hopes, acting Manatee County administrator, said that there is now below 300 million gallons of water left to be pumped from the leaking reservoir. Last week that number was around 480 million gallons. Hopes said with the additional pumps being provided by the state, by tomorrow morning the amount of water being pumped out will be nearly doubled.

Read more about the afternoon press conference.

The next news conference will be Monday at 12:30 p.m. Congressman Vern Buchanan will be there with Manatee County officials.

Video: Manatee County and state officials provide a Sunday afternoon update

Piney Point Update

2pm Press Conference

Posted by Manatee County, Florida Government on Sunday, April 4, 2021

345 jail inmates evacuated

Amid concerns about the potential collapse of the Piney Point reservoir, Manatee County Sheriff’s officials are evacuating about 345 inmates from the county jail’s first floor.

Sheriff Rick Wells said Sunday that moving all the inmates to the second floor, which was the plan county officials originally announced, would be too much of a security risk. Instead, the jail is taking the inmates by bus to a location Wells declined to share Sunday afternoon while they were still being moved.

The remaining inmates and staff on the first floor will be moved to the second floor, along with medical equipment. There were 1,063 inmates in jail Sunday.

Read more on the evacuation plan.

Sunday afternoon: ‘Much more comfortable’

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.

Gov. Ron 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.

“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.”

“We’re not out of the critical area yet,” he said.

Sunday morning: Gov. DeSantis speaks from Manatee County

DeSantis, state and local officials held a briefing in Manatee County Sunday morning regarding the threat of a catastrophic discharge from the old Piney Point phosphate plant. Officials fear a collapse that could release a rush of polluted water into the surrounding area — and then into Tampa Bay itself.

“What we’re looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis said.

The governor addressed reports of radioactive wastewater, saying “To be clear the water (currently) being discharged to Port Manatee is not radioactive. It is primarily saltwater from the Port Manatee dredge project mixed with legacy process water and stormwater runoff. … The primary concern is nutrients.”

Hopes said with the amount of water left to pump, if there was a full breach, models show in less than an hour up to a 20 foot wall of water could form. He encouraged those in the current evacuation zone to heed the warning and leave their homes.

When asked about the staff and residents at the Manatee County Central Jail, which falls within the latest evacuation area, Hopes said those inside the building have been moved to the second floor of the facility and sand bags had been placed around the outside of the facility.

In regards to the future, Hopes said, “We won’t be repairing the liner, we will be depleting the holding ponds of their water and then we will be moving forward to a permanent solution into the future once we mitigate the current risk, which will probably include filling these ponds after they are devoid of their contents and capping them.”

Go to the full story from the governor’s press conference.

Video: Gov. Ron DeSantis, state and local officials speaking from Manatee County Sunday morning

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection tweeted a video showing the Florida National Guard airlifting a pump to help with draining water from the leaking reservoir.

On Sunday, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted that the city was monitoring the incident at Piney Point.

Evacuation orders remained in effect Sunday morning for the area around the Piney Point reservoir. About 6 p.m. Saturday, the county announced that it was expanding the evacuation area to cover an estimated 316 homes, citing the possibility of a “large-scale breach.”

5 questions answered on Piney Point

Environment reporter Zachary T. Sampson explains what a phosphogypsum stack is, what is being discharged into Tampa Bay from Piney Point and more in this quick explainer of questions surrounding the Piney Point leak.

Reporting on Piney Point from the Times Archives

From a July 2003 story in the St. Petersburg Times: “A top state regulator calls Piney Point ‘one of the biggest environmental threats in Florida history.’ State officials fear the waste will spill into Tampa Bay, killing millions of fish and destroying plant life for miles.”

Read more from “Bending the rules at Piney Point: A $140 million mess

Saturday: In the evacuation zone, but not going anywhere

Kenneth Rexford, 76, and his wife Elaine, 73, said Saturday evening they had no plans to leave their home in the Gillette Groves subdivision in Palmetto despite the mandatory evacuation order.
Kenneth Rexford, 76, and his wife Elaine, 73, said Saturday evening they had no plans to leave their home in the Gillette Groves subdivision in Palmetto despite the mandatory evacuation order. [ Josh Fiallo ]

Kenneth Rexford, 76, and his wife Elaine, 73, said Saturday evening that they had no plans to heed the evacuation order and leave their home in the Gillette Groves subdivision near Moccasin Wallow Road and S Tamiami Trail.

They’re aware of the environmental hazards if the old Piney Point phosphate plant breaches. But it’s been a problem for so long now that Kenneth Rexford wonders if residents have just grown accustomed to the risks — and are baffled as to why local and state leaders haven’t done more to fix it.

Here’s what else the couple had to say to a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

• • •

Saturday: ‘The imminent threat is public health.’

This overhead photo shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine on Saturday. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency because officials fear a significant leak at a large pond of wastewater could burst and flood the nearby region.
This overhead photo shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine on Saturday. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency because officials fear a significant leak at a large pond of wastewater could burst and flood the nearby region. [ TIFFANY TOMPKINS | AP ]

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, who traveled to Tampa Bay on Saturday to address the deteriorating Piney Point situation, spoke to the Tampa Bay Times.

“I don’t want to forecast what could happen,” he said. “But the county’s mandated evacuation should be taken seriously.”

Wastewater, Valenstein said, was flowing to Port Manatee at a rate of about 35 million gallons a day. Environmental regulators will monitor water quality to track the effect of those discharges into Tampa Bay over time. Valenstein said his focus is on the immediate danger.

“We can take care of nutrients in the environment,” he said. “The bay is resilient, we can monitor and enforce and hold the company accountable.

“The imminent threat is public health.”

An outside engineer working with HRK Holdings on Thursday told Manatee commissioners that the plastic liner in the reservoir had “a long-documented history of ... having problems.” State records show the company reported small cracks above the water line multiple times in the last year.

Asked about those reports, Valenstein said the site is “highly regulated,” with operators required to provide reports from inspections.

“There were obviously tears above the water line that were noticed and immediately patched,” he said. “That’s the ongoing process with a liner system.”

But the secretary said the historic pattern of Piney Point suffering problems and being passed between owners now “has to stop.”

“We have to enforce against the company, capture all the environmental impacts and make sure this site is closed,” Valenstein said.

• • •

Saturday: Manatee phosphate plant collapse ‘imminent’

PALMETTO — Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Manatee County on Saturday as officials fear an “imminent” collapse at the old Piney Point phosphate plant.

The situation grew more dire as crews attempted to shore up a breach in a wall around a 480-million gallon wastewater reservoir that has been leaking for days. They used front-end loaders, excavators and dump trucks to pile dirt over the breach.

But at 10:30 a.m. Saturday the on-site engineers “deemed the situation to be escalating,” said Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur. One containment wall shifted to the side, he said, signaling a structural collapse could happen at any time.

Read more about how the situation at Pine Point grew dire on Saturday.

Previous coverage from the Tampa Bay Times