PALMETTO — Evacuation orders ended late Tuesday around a leaking wastewater pond at the old Piney Point phosphate plant as officials said the risk of an immediate crisis had dropped substantially.
“Our residents and business owners can return home safely tonight,” said Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh.
Ecological concerns for Tampa Bay, meanwhile, continued to come into focus. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimated that 165 million gallons of wastewater have been released into the deep channel at Port Manatee on Tampa Bay.
There are about 300 million gallons remaining in the leaking reservoir, the state said, compared to approximately 480 million gallons before the releases began.
After days of state officials and politicians saying they plan to hold the property’s owner, HRK Holdings, accountable for any environmental damage, the company released a lengthy statement about the plastic lining that is thought to have cracked, triggering the initial leak in the polluted pond.
“It is important to note that the defective lining at Piney Point had already been installed before HRK Holdings acquired the property in 2006,” the statement said. HRK went on to say it has worked under oversight from the Department of Environmental Protection and is involved in litigation over what it says was defective design and installation of the liner. “Even though we inherited this problem, we have been determined to find a solution for the benefit of the community.”
The leak has prompted fears of a catastrophe for much of the last week, with pressure from the water threatening to break apart the phosphogypsum stack around the reservoir. Phosphogypsum, a byproduct of making fertilizer, is radioactive. The state has said the water is not, but it is high in nitrogen and phosphorus. Those nutrients could encourage harmful algal blooms in Tampa Bay.
Evacuation orders issued Friday and Saturday covered an estimated 316 homes, the county said, and more than 100 residents had been sheltered, some with pets, at local hotels. State troopers closed a section of U.S. 41 that ran past Piney Point, between Hillsborough and Manatee counties. The highway was reopened Tuesday.
Jacob Saur, Manatee’s public safety director, said a team of specialists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reassessed the flood risk from a sudden discharge of the pond if the berms around it collapse. That “more accurate” model, he said, showed less devastation to the immediate area.
Pumps continued Tuesday to drain water from the pond at a rate of 23,500 gallons per minute, said acting county administrator Scott Hopes, at a morning County Commission meeting. That release was flowing to the port up the road.
In addition, Mosaic, a phosphate mining company with property across Central Florida, was trucking away some polluted water to its facilities. Hopes said an out-of-state company might bring portable tanks to hold up to another 150 million gallons of wastewater at Piney Point, keeping it out of Tampa Bay. More water flowing from a breach in a wall around the reservoir — which had increased fears of a collapse over the weekend — was also being stored in a separate reservoir at Piney Point, according to Hopes.
The water going to the bay, he said, is coming from the top of the pond, where he said fish and ducks have lived. Hopes said those flows hopefully have less muck and sediment from an old dredging project than what’s rushing out from the bottom of the reservoir and being kept on-site.
“I’m not saying it’s great. ... (But) what we’re putting into Tampa Bay is the least of the evils,” said Manatee Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge.
State and local agencies are monitoring water quality in the bay around Port Manatee.
“We have two to three boats a day out in the water collecting water samples,” Department of Environmental Protection deputy secretary John Truitt told the commissioners.
The agency said it has also created a working group to look for partners who could help remove nutrients from the water at Piney Point or possibly from discharges into the bay. The mission would be “to prevent or minimize algal blooms.”
Elected officials from Manatee have in recent months, before the release, labeled Piney Point a priority amid reports that rainfall could raise the wastewater ponds past their limits. On Tuesday, commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with a plan to build an injection well to remove water from the old plant and pump it deep underground.
The decision will allow the county to take advantage of money freed up by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ declaration of a state of emergency, according to Hopes. Design and permitting are the immediate steps. The Department of Environmental Protection, Hopes said, has vowed to expedite the permitting process.
The well would be built on Manatee County property across from Piney Point along Buckeye Road. Commissioners would control requirements for treating the water and when the pump would be used, Hopes said. Those points were important for Baugh, the commission chairwoman, who has opposed a well in the past over worries the wastewater cold taint the freshwater supply for local residents and farmers.
“The main thing here is that this water will be cleaned before it’s put down the well,” she said Tuesday. “So we do have a little added protection there for our aquifer.”
The commissioners said they intend to cap the well after Piney Point is drained. It is unclear how long the project would take.
The threat of pollution from Piney Point — with multiple spills since the plant was built in 1966 — has lingered for 20 years after its last operator went out of business. The state was in charge of managing the stacks for a while before HRK Holdings bought the property.
A few residents spoke at the commission meeting, expressing frustration that the problem was not handled long ago.
“Now is not the time for any sort of finger-pointing,” Van Ostenbridge said.
Times staff writer Bethany Barnes contributed to this report.