Piney Point wastewater leak continues but no new breach is found

Late Monday, state officials said there is only one confirmed breach in a wall that they continue to monitor.
Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, addresses the media Monday about the crisis at the former Piney Point phosphate plant, along with Manatee County officials.
Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, addresses the media Monday about the crisis at the former Piney Point phosphate plant, along with Manatee County officials. [ ZACHARY T. SAMPSON | Times ]
Published April 5, 2021|Updated April 7, 2021

BRADENTON ― Around 2 a.m. Monday, an infrared drone “identified what could be a second breach” in a wall surrounding a polluted reservoir at the former Piney Point phosphate plant, Manatee County officials said.

Jacob Saur, director of Manatee County public safety, appeared with U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, and other officials around midday to update the threatening situation. He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other specialists were on site trying to assess the findings of the drone. The reservoir has been leaking for more than a week; engineers believe a crack in the plastic lining holding the wastewater is to blame.

Late Monday, the Department of Environmental Protection said there is only one confirmed breach in a wall that crews continue to monitor. In what was another example of the urgency and uncertainty of the predicament, engineers determined it was safe to continue working on the site.

Officials have four major lines and smaller pumps moving water out of the site, Saur said. They fear pressure from the leak could break apart stacks of phosphogypsum around the pond. Phosphogypsum is a radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer industry. The reservoir holds a mix of seawater, rainwater and a polluted byproduct of processing phosphate for fertilizer, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. It is slightly acidic and has high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Related: ‘50,000 bags of fertilizer:’ What could Piney Point do to Tampa Bay?

Evacuation orders around the old plant remain in place. About 315 homes are covered by those orders.

Buchanan took a helicopter tour of the area Monday, he said. Staff of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have arrived in Palmetto, too.

“To see the water spewing out, it looked very contaminated to me,” Buchanan said. He emphasized the need to “bring all the resources we can” to getting the ponds and stacks cleaned up for good.

“I am concerned about the threat to public safety, homes, as well as businesses and, of course, marine life,” Buchanan said. “I really hate to see what’s happened.”

“When I see water flowing into Tampa Bay, it makes me sick about it.”

Acting Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes said as of Monday morning, pumps were draining the pond at a rate of about 35 million gallons per day. The water is being dumped toward Tampa Bay at Port Manatee. With additional pumps online by the end of Monday, Hopes said he believes the rate could increase to 75 or 100 million gallons drained per day.

By midday, there were a little under 300 million gallons of wastewater still in the reservoir, according to Hopes’ estimate.

Before the leak, the pond held about 480 million gallons.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has flown over the site and visited Manatee for a briefing. He has declared a state of emergency covering Manatee, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The plant is close to the Hillsborough line.

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Related: Five questions answered about Piney Point leak in Manatee County

Army Corps engineers have taken over assessing the status of the leak and stability of the gypsum stacks, Hopes said. Previously a third-party engineer working with the property’s owner, HRK Holdings, was doing that work, he said.

Buchanan echoed state officials who have said they plan to hold HRK Holdings accountable for the incident and any environmental damages it causes. The added nitrogen from the discharges, environmental advocates warn, could support algal blooms in the bay.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, on Monday said he wanted to spend $200 million in federal stimulus dollars to clean up the site. The amount would fund the “complete cleanup and closure” of the site, according to a news release. “This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen for too long,” Simpson said in a statement. “We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in 5, 10, or 20 years.”

The problems at Piney Point are long-running. Since its one-time owner, Mulberry Corp., closed for business a couple of decades ago, the gypsum stacks and wastewater have loomed near the bay. The state was in charge for years before HRK bought the property, taking on the management of the stacks.

Spills have happened at Piney Point before. Environmentalists have repeatedly warned of the hazard. Public officials never fully pushed the site to closure.

Buchanan said he plans to keep the attention on Piney Point brought by the current leak. “I’m angry about it, frankly,” he said.

Capt. Scott Moore said he has been guiding fishing charters out of Manatee County for 40 years. In that time he’s seen repeated problems at Piney Point without serious progress toward a solution that might have prevented the latest release.

Speaking at a media event organized by a local clean water advocacy group on Monday afternoon, Moore, 67, of Holmes Beach, said he believes the discharge will force fish out of that area.

Just outside Port Manatee, he said, is a major spawning ground for snook. When he and his son visited spots around the discharge Friday, he said, they thought they noticed a different hue to the water in a section they fish often.

“The state needs to take the water quality seriously,” Moore said, criticizing regulators for failing to close waste ponds at the plant. “It’s not just Okeechobee.”

Times/Herald staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.