BRADENTON, Fla. — Manatee County remained under a state of emergency Sunday as federal, state and local leaders worked to contain a leak at a former phosphate processing plant that threatens to contaminate the area with millions of gallons of polluted water.
A worst-case scenario could send 20 feet of contaminated water flooding from the site, Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said Sunday during a news briefing with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A total breach that spurts out uncontrolled water could also destabilize gypsum stacks that contain radioactive material.
Crews on Friday found a breach in the site’s largest pond, which originally contained about 480 million gallons of water. Because of potential flooding, an emergency evacuation order was ordered in the area, and it has been expanded to more than 300 homes. U.S. 41 remains closed to traffic to Moccasin Wallow Road.
“The models for less than an hour could be a 20-foot wall of water,” Hopes said. “If you’re in an evacuation area and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice.”
Hopes also said that current models show 1 to 5 feet of flooding as more likely. And officials say they remain optimistic that an increase in a controlled water release from the site, strategically pumped into Tampa Bay, can prevent disaster.
A controlled release of untreated water from the site continues at a rate of 33 million gallons per day, and additional pumps were set to increase the capacity of water leaving the site on Sunday.
DeSantis took an aerial tour of the site before Sunday’s briefing.
“Public health and safety is the top priority,” DeSantis said. “The goal is to ensure the integrity of the stack system as quickly as possible.”
The governor said the water leaking from the site is not radioactive.
“It is primarily salt water from the Port Manatee dredge project mixed with legacy process water and storm water runoff. The water was tested prior to discharge. The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with exception primarily of the phosphorous and the nitrogen.”
There were no major changes at the site overnight, Saturday into Sunday, according to Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur. About 340 million gallons remained in the leaking pond on Sunday afternoon.
“It looks like it got a little larger,” he said of the leak.
In addition to homes and warehouses, the Manatee County Jail is in the evacuation zone. Rather than evacuating, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has placed sandbags at entrances and plans to move inmates to upper levels in case of a flood. The jail’s medical unit and all personnel had been moved to the second floor as of Sunday morning.
On Saturday, Florida Department of Environmental Protection secretary Noah Valenstein called the disaster the “last chapter” for the site.
“Piney Point has a long story with many chapters to it,” Valenstein told the Bradenton Herald in an interview. “After this incident, and looking into the future, we will stay mobilized until this site is closed. It’s our commitment to make sure this is the last chapter and last story about this site.”
The site, across from Manatee’s port, opened in 1966 to process phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilizer. It became inactive in 2001, but the site as been an environmental headache for decades. HRK Holdings acquired the Piney Point site in 2006.
For years, officials have pointed to the amount of process water held on the site. That water is a chemical byproduct of phosphate mining, and it is filled with nitrogen, phosphorous and ammonia. Those nutrients can affect local water quality.
But the leak discovered last month and the partial breach that followed has been the most serious problem at the site.
On Sunday Hopes, said that once the crisis has been resolved, the ponds will likely be drained, filled and capped.
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