A Florida reservoir contaminated with radioactive wastewater could collapse ‘at any time’ and has prompted evacuations of more than 300 homes 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.
Residents who live around the reservoir received an alert via text from officials telling them to leave the area immediately because the collapse was ‘imminent.’
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, officials said in a statement that the main concern from the collapse would be flooding, calling the water being discharged ‘slightly acidic.’
The pond where the leak was discovered is at the old Piney Point phosphate mine, sitting in a stack of phosphogypsum, a waste product from manufacturing fertilizer that is radioactive. It contains small amounts of naturally occurring radium and uranium, and the stacks can also release large concentrations of radon gas.
Authorities had expanded the evacuation area later on Saturday to include more homes, but said they were not planning to open shelters after efforts to plug the hole were unsuccessful.
Gov DeSantis will travel to the area Sunday to meet with officials and to give an update.
Scroll down for video
A Florida reservoir contaminated with radioactive wastewater allegedly could collapse ‘at any time’ after 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
An Instagram user posts a photo of the alert on April 3, 2021 after a breach of untreated wastewater at an old phosphate mine at Piney Point in Bradenton, Florida
‘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.’
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said Saturday: ‘We are completing rigorous water quality sampling daily to support any future enforcement action.
‘While this water meets most water quality standards for marine waters, there are elevated levels of nutrients and the water is acidic. However, the water is not radioactive.’
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.
Jaclyn Lopez, Florida Director of the Center for Biological Diversity told Bay 9 News: ‘This is nothing that should come as any surprise to officials that have been monitoring this phosphogypsum stack.
‘It has had a series and history of repeated leaks and breaches and discharges into Tampa Bay and this latest is the most alarming because it’s caused this public notice that’s forced the evacuation and the governor to declare a state of emergency.’
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 that could pose much more hazardous problems.
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.
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
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 the entire pond 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.
Some officials are concerned that pumping the water into Tampa Bay could case algae blooms, WOGX reported. Aerial video from the outlet show the water flowing out of the retention pond as it is pumped out.
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
Aerial video from WOGX shows the water flowing out of the retention pond as it is pumped out in Florida
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.
Another 2011 spill at Piney Point was twice as large as estimated as it leaked nearly 170 million gallons of seawater contaminated with heavy metals into Bishop Harbor and lower Tampa Bay, Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported at the time.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection told the outlet at the time that cadmium ‘was initially found in the water at a level more than nine times above the state safety standard.’
Axios reported that site manager Jeff Barath ‘appeared to fight back tears’ while addressing the leak with county commissioners about the latest leak.
‘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.
People took to Twitter on Saturday to react to the news of the leak at the Piney Point plant in Bradenton, Florida
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.
People took to Twitter on Saturday to react to the news of the leak at the Piney Point plant.
‘Reading up on this Piney Point spill. Possible radioactive waste getting into the ecosystem. Can’t wait till the radioactive gators hit Miami,;’ one Twitter user quipped.
Another said: ‘Did you hear what happened in Florida? Windmills and other green energy caused a toxic spill in Piney Point. Damn progressives. #sarcasm.’
‘Piney point is exactly why they have to pass this infrastructure bill,’ wrote a Twitter user named Debra, referring to a controversial $2.2trillion plan.
Another Twitter user, @aPositiveRealist, said: ‘HRK Holdings down in Piney Point is actively dumping hundreds of thousands of untreated radioactive waste into the bay because of a breach in the holdings tanks they have refused to process properly due to $. All with government support!’
Another joked: ‘Sure wish I lived in a @GOP run state right now.’
‘Not to be outdone by the total collapse of Texas thanks to, yeah, snowflakes… Florida welcomes full on radioactive waste at piney point,’ @Nothing02346402 tweeted.