On April 3rd, 2021, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, issued a tweet from his official Twitter handle about a 'possible breach of mixed saltwater from the south reservoir at the Piney Point facility.' Governor DeSantis also declared a 'state of emergency' for Manatee County, Florida, so that it could seamlessly allocate resources for 'necessary response and recovery.'
Assessing the Threat
After a significant leak, the tweet came into notice at a large pond at the old Piney Point phosphate mine. The leak posed possibilities of bursting a system that stores water polluted with nitrogen and potentially radioactive materials. According to the state department of environmental protection's response, the break was initially detected on Friday in one wall of a 77-acre pond with a depth of 25ft and stores millions of gallons of water containing phosphorous and nitrogen from the old phosphate plant.
The area contains three active retention ponds with the total storage capacity adding up to a figure as high as 880 million gallons of water.
As soon as the break was detected, the officials mobilized rocks and materials to plug the hole but failed to repair the breach. The Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes held a press conference on Saturday and said that the water could flood the area with the potential of about 600 million gallons of water leaving the pool and going around the surrounding area within a matter of minutes and seconds.
The most pressing concern for the state authorities was the fact that the old Piney Point phosphate mine sits in a stack of phosphogypsum. Photogypsum generates as a waste product from manufacturing fertilizer. It is considered a radioactive material as it contains small amounts of naturally occurring radium and uranium. The stacks also have the potential to release radon gas in significant concentration.
Plans to Deactivate the Threat
After assessing the threat's scale, the authorities issued an order to evacuate more than 300 homes. Residents living around the Piney Point reservoir received an alert via text. The residents were directed to leave the area as, according to the authorities, a collapse was 'imminent.'
On Saturday, the limits of the original evacuation zone were expanded further. The county officials said that the zone expanded one and a half mile west and one mile southwest to Moccasin Wallow road. According to estimates, 316 households fall in the evacuation area. As per Jacob Sour, the public safety director, the evacuation zone did not include any significant residential areas. Moreover, since the area did not have any assisted living facilities or patients with special needs, the authorities did not have any plans to open public shelters.
However, efforts to control the situation started immediately with workers pumping out thousands of gallons of water per minute to bring down the volume. It was estimated that pumping the entire pond would take anywhere between 10 and 12 days. Another team was deployed to work out a way of controlling how the water can flow from the pond into Tampa Bay.
The processed water has a pH level of 5.7. Although the county's interim director Scott Hope declared it to be "within a safe margin," the water has ammonia in it. The authorities denied the scope of the water having anything with radiation or high levels of heavy metals. But, at the same time, Hopes was quoted saying, "obviously, you would not prefer to go swimming in it".
Yet, the threat with the other two ponds is higher. As stated by Hopes on Saturday, the other two ponds have "waste that would be less conducive to life on land and life in the sea." Releasing the water from the other two ponds would require improvement in the pH level by treating it for the ammonia content and other materials.
As per the latest available numbers, water is being pumped at a rate of 22,000 gallons per minute into Tampa Bay. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has denied the water to be a concern or toxic. But, it has been agreed that the water does not meet the quality standards for pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, and total ammonia nitrogen.
Here is a video of Capt. Joshua Taylor's take on the Piney Point leak and HRK Holdings negligence: