Floods of contaminated wastewater have rushed into the environment of Florida after a reservoir at an old phosphate mine sprung a leak. Along with the potential threat to public health, there are mounting fears that this could spell disaster for the rich wildlife living in and around the local area.
On March 26, wastewater started to gush out of a pond at the Piney Point facility in Manatee County, around 64 kilometers (40 miles) south of Tampa along Florida's Gulf Coast, according to the Florida Governor's office. The facility was formerly a plant used to process phosphate – a key ingredient in fertilizer – and continues to hold millions of gallons of water that have been contaminated by the site's phosphogypsum stack.
Prior to the leak, the facility held approximately 480 million gallons of contaminated water, but now a little over 300 million gallons remain. If the reservoir totally ruptures, officials fear it will cause a “catastrophic flood" into the surrounding environment. By April 3, Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, declared a state of emergency for Manatee Country after officials warned of the “imminent collapse” of the reservoir, adding the state is now working to prevent a "real catastrophic flood situation." Authorities ordered more than 300 homes to be evacuated and closed off a highway this past weekend to brace for such an event.
“We’re hoping that doesn’t happen, but we need to prepare for it,” DeSantis said at a press conference on April 4.
DeSantis noted that around 35 million gallons of the polluted water were being pumped out of the reservoir into surrounding waterways through “a controlled discharge” in order to reduce the risk of a total collapse of the water storage facility.
Sampling data suggest the water is slightly acidic mixed-saltwater that’s rich in nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia nitrogen. There were early fears that the water might be radioactive (as phosphogypsum contains radioactive isotopes) but DeSantis said that’s now not a major concern. Nevertheless, pouring huge amounts of nutrients into a water system can cause havoc for freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems, as it fuels excessive plant and algal growth. As well as depriving other life of nutrients, it can result in blooms of noxious phytoplankton that release toxins into the water.
The wider Tampa Bay area is home to an incredible array of wildlife, including sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees, as well as more than two dozen species of nesting herons, egrets, ibis, gulls, terns, and shorebirds.
Public health is a big concern, but officials have indicated that the public water supply is safe to drink.
"I want to say that Manatee County Utilities customers can rest assured that our drinking water is completely safe to drink," Vanessa Baugh, County Commission Chairman, said in a statement. "The water distribution system is a closed system without any way for flood water to enter."
This decaying former phosphate mine has been a bugbear for locals and environmentalists for some time. According to Tampa Bay Times, state records show that the company that manages the reservoirs was aware of significant deterioration to its plastic liner for years. An engineer even advised against using the reservoir as a backstop at peak levels because of a “relatively high potential for liner failure and potential release of process water into the gypsum dikes or pond floor.” There were also frequent reports of damage to the liner or cracks, which appear to have gone unaddressed.
Residents can find the latest information on the situation at Piney Point on ProtectingFloridaTogether.gov/PineyPointUpdate.