USF’s invaluable role in protecting Tampa Bay | Editorial
As the Piney Point spill shows, health of the bay is key to the regional economy.
A model from researchers at the University of South Florida simulates the first days of pollutant plume off Piney Point.  Orange and yellow indicate higher concentrations.
A model from researchers at the University of South Florida simulates the first days of pollutant plume off Piney Point. Orange and yellow indicate higher concentrations. [ University of South Florida Ocean Circulation Group ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published April 14, 2021|Updated April 14, 2021

The crisis at Piney Point has subsided. Wastewater from the former fertilizer plant property has stopped flowing — at least temporarily — into Tampa Bay, and on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled another step in the cleanup and recovery effort. But major questions still need addressing about the threat this facility poses to the region. Tampa Bay should at least take comfort in the leading role the University of South Florida is playing to protect the area’s environment, economy and quality of life.

DeSantis announced Tuesday he is steering another $15.4 million toward cleaning up Piney Point, an old phosphate plant in Manatee County, where a leak in recent weeks has prompted the release of more than 200 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay. At a news conference in Manatee County, the governor said he will redirect funds to the Department of Environmental Protection to help pay for treating wastewater at the site before any more is pumped to Tampa Bay. DeSantis also said state scientists and engineers will draft a plan to close Piney Point.

These are long overdue steps for an operation that has bounced between private and government hands. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Zachary T. Sampson reported, the releases began weeks ago after the property’s owner, HRK Holdings, reported a leak in a reservoir that held more than 450 million gallons of wastewater. State regulators approved discharges of water from the polluted pond out of fears that rising pressures could cause a catastrophic flood. About 215 million gallons of wastewater have been released into Tampa Bay.

State officials have the right idea about shuttering this operation for good. As that plan develops, USF is filling a critical role by helping to monitor the nitrogen-rich effluent that has flowed into the bay. Scientists worry the discharge could fuel harmful algal blooms that lead to fish kills. The Ocean Circulation Group at USF is forecasting where the waste could go, with a model showing pollution slowly dissipating along the lower Tampa Bay coast. Other researchers from the university’s College of Marine Science are studying water quality and trying to understand the impact on the bay’s ecology.

These are critical issues to examine as the cleanup operation proceeds. As the model indicates, the discharges of effluent have resulted in a “pollutant plume that continues to evolve,” impacting not only the lower bay but reaching south toward Anna Maria Sound. The threat to beachfront property, tourism, the commercial fisheries and other key components of the region’s economy are only now being imagined. The monitoring effort will take months if not years, and it needs to be led by trusted professionals who know the science of Tampa Bay. That’s where USF fits in, playing a key caretaker role, just as it did a decade ago in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Department of Environmental Protection is also monitoring water quality near the site, and Secretary Noah Valenstein said Tuesday the agency was preparing a legal case to hold the company “fully accountable” for the breach. That move — like the cleanup itself — will likely be a long-term process. In the interim, USF has underscored the stakes for the region. It’s the latest reminder of the enormous contribution the university’s College of Marine Science makes in Tampa Bay.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.