Toxic Reservoir Breach Prompts Florida to Declare ‘State of Emergency’ Amid Mounting Concerns of a Collapse
Easter weekend brought with it more than a bunny and eggs for local Manatee County residents. Amid fear of a local wastewater pond collapse, Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency.
Although some residents have since been given the ‘go ahead’ to return to their homes, mounting concerns about the ongoing wastewater leak abound.
Remnants of the Former Piney Point Phosphate Processing Plant
The pond was once a wastewater reservoir for the Piney Point Phosphate Processing Plant, no longer in operation. Prior to that, the site was home to a fertilizer plant. Phosphate is a key ingredient in fertilizer, requiring specialized processing, treatment and remediation.
This site is no stranger to catastrophe. In 1989, for example, a leaking storage tank on site released 23,000 gallons of sulphate, also prompting local evacuations and killing three workers.
Where is the Toxic Water Going?
Water from the initial breach was originally emptying into Piney Point Creek. Not long after emergency response teams were able to divert the breached water into a 35 million gallon lined pond on site. Given that there remains around 300 million gallons of water in the exiting breached reservoir, this seems but a stopgap in an otherwise ongoing problem.
Both drone teams and those on the ground have been continually monitoring the situation, with looming fears of a second possible breach on everyone’s mind.
Initial evacuation orders were sent out on April 2nd (Friday) for anyone living within one-half mile of Piney Point. At this time all surrounding stretches of highway were immediately closed to traffic, but by that upcoming Tuesday had been reopened.
By the 3rd , evacuation orders were extended to anyone within one mile north of the reservoir’s phosphogypsum (fertilizer waste) stacks, as well as anyone within one-half mile to the south. On Saturday evening, mandatory evacuations were also extended by a half-mile further southwest and west of the breached site, bringing the total count of evacuated homes to 316 at that time.
Although squarely within the ‘evacuation zone’, at the time, Manatee County jail had only moved between 267-345 of it’s more than 1000 inmates.
By Sunday evening, the FAA had issued a temporary flight restriction over the reservoir extending into Monday, and Manatee County Schools had announced that bus transportation within the evacuation zone had been suspended.
The Good, The Bad, and The Downright Ugly
Water samples obtained from the breached reservoir yielded ‘some’ hope. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the water was not radioactive. Working in conjunction with local departments, ongoing and continual water testing has revealed that the water itself is not inherently toxic, but has levels of nutrients that could be harmful to the environment, and that it still poses a major concern.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that other reservoirs on the site may not be as moderately harmless. Although the situation is fluid and evolving quickly, Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes was cited as saying that the current outlook is more optimistic than it was when first detected.
A Shift In Blame: the scapegoat
According to local commissioners, local governing bodies aren’t necessarily at fault (although this will likely be determined in a court of law).
Local commissioner Hopes was cited as saying, “We had to react as the local governing body in order to protect our citizens and our businesses,” Hopes said. “We didn’t create the problem, nor were we responsible for solving the problem.”
Although much work has been done to reduce the risk to the public, this cavalier attitude of “we’re not responsible for solving the problem” might not sit well with local area residents whose health and wellbeing may be impacted by the breach.
Ongoing Efforts, Lasting Impact
New data from the Army Corps of Engineers revealed a now ‘diminished risk’ for an uncontrolled breach. While Buckeye Road remains closed for the immediate future, most other areas have since been taken off of any restrictions.
Federal, state and local efforts and cooperation remain ongoing, and although residents and business owners have returned to their homes and establishments, the emotional and financial impact of this incident remains.
Efforts are currently underway to use a deep injection well located on County-owned property, providing additional control over water quality prior to entering the well for public use.
Despite these efforts, many local residents have ongoing concerns about the potential impact on their health and well-being, and the potential risk of additional, perhaps more devastating, breaches in the future.