A Florida reservoir contaminated with radioactive wastewater allegedly could collapse ‘at any time’ and has prompted evacuations as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Saturday.
A significant leak at a large pond of wastewater was discovered on Friday at the old Piney Point phosphate mine in the Tampa Bay area north of Bradenton.
Waste material on the property is stored in water-covered stacks of phosphogypsum – a fertilizer waste product that is radioactive, WTSP reported.
The pond at the reservoir contains small amounts of naturally occurring radium and uranium, and the stacks can also release large concentrations of radon gas.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the break was detected in one of the walls of a 77-acre pond that is 25 feet deep and holds millions of gallons of water containing phosphorus and nitrogen from the old phosphate plant.
However, Florida officials said in a statement that the main concern from the collapse would be flooding, calling the water being discharged ‘slightly acidic.’
Officials have ordered more than 300 homes to be evacuated after efforts to plug the hole were unsuccessful. Authorities expanded the evacuation area later on Saturday to include more homes, but said they were not planning to open shelters.
A Florida reservoir contaminated with radioactive wastewater allegedly could collapse ‘at any time’ a significant leak at a large pond of wastewater was discovered on Friday at the old Piney Point phosphate mine
A video shows 11,000 gallons of Piney Point process water being released, per minute, near Port Manatee in Florida
The video shows water coming from one of two pumps operating in the wake of the disastrous leak this weekend
Residents were ordered to ‘evacuate immediately’ on Saturday as workers tried to drain the water into nearby Tampa Bay in an attempt to prevent the collapse
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Saturday as officials ordered at least 300 homes to evacuate the area
‘The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen,’ the state said in a statement.
‘It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic.’
Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said at a press conference on Saturday that the water could flood the area, which he said was agricultural and low in population density.
‘We are talking about the potential of about 600 million gallons within a matter of seconds and minutes leaving that retention pool and going around the surrounding area,’ Hopes said.
Hopes added that the the pond is ‘basically salt water’ but said if the pond collapses, there is a risk it could destabilize the walls of other areas in the plant.
The wastewater in the other ponds would need to be treated to reduce ammonium content and other materials.
‘We saw ducks yesterday, there are snooks swimming in there. It’s sustaining wildlife. That´s not the case for the other two pools,’ he said of the pond with the leak.
Manatee County Director of Public Safety Jake Saur told CBS News: ‘A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally, signifying that structural collapse could occur at any time.’
Residents who live around the Piney Point reservoir received a text message alert on Saturday telling them to leave the area immediately because the collapse was ‘imminent.’
Officials brought in rocks and materials to plug the hole in the pond late Friday into Saturday, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
A new expanded emergency evacuation order was sent out to an area around Piney Point, the former phosphate mine on Saturday
This photo shows the old Piney Point phosphate mine on Saturday in Bradenton, Florida
The plant has reportedly struggled with leaks and other issues ‘for more than fifty years’
The evacuation area around Piney Point has expanded and residents within this area are being sent an emergency alert to evacuate now
Workers have been pumping out thousands of gallons per minute to bring the volume down in the event the pond bursts. Pumping it would take 10 to 12 days.
Others have been working to chart the path to control how the water flows from the pond into the Tampa Bay.
‘Due to a possible breach of mixed saltwater from the south reservoir at the Piney Point facility, I have declared a State of Emergency for Manatee County to ensure resources are allocated for necessary response & recovery,’ DeSantis tweeted.
DeSantis’ declaration of a state of emergency allocates more pumps and cranes to the area.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried urged the governor in a letter to convene an emergency session of the state cabinet to discuss a plan, adding that this property has seen similar leaks in the past.
‘For more than fifty years, this Central Florida mining operation has caused numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents,’ Fried said in the letter.
Manatee County Commissioners announced the complete evacuation in a statement on Twitter
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried urged the governor in a letter to convene an emergency session of the state cabinet to discuss a plan
Those incidents include ‘evacuations from sulfuric acid leaks, deaths of multiple employees, the release of more than 1 billion gallons of contaminated wastewater, and ongoing, regular gypsum stack and reservoir leaks.’
She blamed the leaks on ‘poor construction and maintenance that released heavy metals and pollutants into the region’s water and soil.’
‘The immediate evacuation of residents, disruption of families during Easter weekend, and potential environmental catastrophe requires the attention and action of Florida’s statewide elected leadership,’ Fried said.
The site has long been considered ‘one of the biggest environmental threats in Florida history,’ according to the Florida Phoenix.
Piney Point’s previous owner, Mulberry Corp., had long declared bankruptcy and abandoned the plant, the Florida Phoenix reported.
HRK Holdings bought it for $4.3 million from Mulberry Corp. in 2006 as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
Since then, HRK has ‘been in and out of bankruptcy’ itself, the Florida Phoenix reported. HRK did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
HRK Holdings LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after it suffered a leak in a gypsum stack liner in 2011 in Manatee County, Bradenton.com reported.
Axios reported that site manager Jeff Barath ‘appeared to fight back tears’ while addressing the leak with county commissioners.
‘There will likely be impacts in Tampa Bay,’ he told the commission.
The phosphate processing plant was first built in 1966 by the Borden Chemical Company and it was later owned by Royster Phosphates, WTSP reported.
The Mulberry Corp. bought it at some point in the 1990s and abandoned it in 2001, according to the outlet.
In 2016, more than 200 million gallons of contaminated waste water from another fertilizer plant in central Florida leaked into one of the state´s main aquifers after a massive sinkhole opened up in a pond of a phosphogypsum stack.
There are at least 70 gypsum stacks in the United States and about 27 in Florida, mostly in the region of west-central Florida.
The wastewater stored in the gypsum stacks can’t be seen from the ground as the piles surrounding the structure can go as high as 500 feet.