Piney Point, a retired fertilizer processing plant in Manatee County, began to leak on March 27. The threat of flooding from an uncontrolled release led to controlled discharges of nutrient-rich wastewater to Tampa Bay. This emergency is the latest reminder that you want scientists to build the foundations for success before a moment of crisis, so that they can respond when the stakes are high — not just react.
Scientists with the right foundations developed multiple COVID-19 vaccines in record-breaking time. They also figured out how to fly a drone in the barely there atmosphere of Mars from Earth — 186 million miles away.
These triumphs of innovation were possible only because we invested in them in advance. Twenty years ago, we doubled the investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), empowering scientists to pursue groundbreaking research on developing vaccines using messenger RNA, or mRNA. These vaccines teach our cells to make the immunity proteins we need without requiring the live virus to be introduced into our bodies. During this work, scientists did not know that a coronavirus pandemic lay ahead, one that would cripple day-to-day lives across the globe and trigger a demand for development of a vaccine in record time. They were prepared for success when the crisis hit, saving countless human lives and livelihoods.
The Mars drone, aptly called Ingenuity, cost $85 million to develop, and it surely didn’t happen overnight. While there is no known crisis on Mars, we have been investing in its exploration since the 1960s. Our technological victories could revolutionize space exploration and help us better understand our place in the universe. Epic existential and scientific stuff.
These vignettes pull into focus a key challenge associated with Piney Point. Scientists, including those at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science and at other academic institutions, along with governments at the local and state levels, did not have the foundations needed to respond to the Piney Point event as quickly as they would have liked.
Piney Point is one of 25 phosphogypsum stacks, or gypstacks, in Florida. These mountainous barrels of waste hold the leftovers from land-based mining operations — often a cocktail of nutrient-rich, acidic wastewater mixed with seawater and rainwater. They are among the most obvious areas of environmental risk.
And now that a failure in the gypstack lining has occurred, requiring the release of 215 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay, we are being asked for the full story of how the heretofore healthy Tampa Bay ecosystem is responding to the unprecedented discharge of nutrient-laden wastewater. People want a clear and consistent account of what happened ASAP, —and yesterday, if possible — but what is in front of us today is more akin to an alphabet soup.
We understand the urgency because we feel it, too. We’ll get there, but it will take time.
A key problem is that we have not invested adequately in a robust and consistent monitoring of Tampa Bay despite its role in providing a backbone to the region’s economy. A 2014 report by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council estimates that one of every five jobs within the Tampa Bay watershed depends upon a healthy bay. But there was not enough monitoring to guide a response when the Piney Point discharge began. In fact, an initial cruise led by the USF College of Marine Science in the early days of the discharge was only possible because of the Florida Institute of Oceanography.
Just like we all need that annual checkup at the doctor’s office, Tampa Bay needs consistent, long-term monitoring — and the requisite funding. Annual checkups let your doctor identify and respond to issues with your health, and monitoring is the foundation for a scientific approach that informs effective management.
Gaps in our knowledge base become acutely apparent in moments of crisis. We learned this when researchers at the USF College of Marine Science assembled to respond to the historic and catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. We learned a ton in the 10-year research effort that ensued, but those lessons would have come a lot sooner had we been building on a baseline understanding of the Gulf of Mexico’s marine life and the health of that ecosystem. In other words, we would have benefited greatly from “annual checkups” in advance of the crisis.
Why is the need for sustained monitoring so often an afterthought? We pay for it, over and over again. We forget, so quickly.
And now we feel the gaps in our knowledge with respect to Piney Point. How we wish we had been out there in the bay sampling the water during rainy and dry seasons, year after year, so that we already had a firm grasp on typical concentrations of chlorophyll, quantities and forms of nutrients and more. With that knowledge, we may have avoided or minimized the predictable series of reactions that so often follow a crisis: exaggerated messaging, unsubstantiated arm-waving, and fruitless finger-pointing.
Beyond being prepared to detect a problem, Piney Point also has reminded us that we need to invest in designing responses to a problem. Risks for people and the environment often arrive hand in hand. Immediate threats and the scale of the disturbance dictate the response and, unfortunately, there often are too few tools in the box to adequately address the complex challenges at hand.
Simply delineating the area of concern around Piney Point, for example, is problematic. When contaminants are introduced to coastal waters, they can be transported far and wide by currents and tides. Accurate forecasting requires appropriately designed and fully operational systems that generate the data needed to inform predictive models that, in turn, guide clean-up and mitigation efforts.
We are fortunate to have a team of physical oceanographers here at the College of Marine Science. Their tireless, 24/7 efforts to forecast the fate of the Piney Point discharge are a testament to their commitment to deliver science in support of the public good. But the fruits of their labor would have been amplified substantially if there had been a mechanism to rapidly deploy our cadre of chemical, biological, and geological oceanographers to collect the on-the-ground data needed to refine the models.
There also is the issue of damage assessment. We are all keenly aware of the risks to Tampa Bay’s marine life, ranging from the immediate concerns about algal blooms to potential adverse effects on fish health in the longer term. How will we know what has been affected, and how will we measure the effects? Detailed inventories of natural resources are scarce, and we lack the long-term assessment programs needed to identify and rigorously evaluate even sizable changes in natural systems.
Make no mistake. Piney Point is not a “one and done.” There will be more incidents. And, such acute events represent just one of the challenges facing Florida’s coasts, a list that includes sea level rise and tidal flooding, more intense storms and hotter days — all against the backdrop of ever-increasing population growth. We cannot prevent all hazardous incidents, but we can respond to future events with strategic plans of action informed by science.
In short, we can progress from reacting to responding, but only if we make the necessary investments today.
Tom Frazer is dean of the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.