Evacuations expand as Manatee phosphate plant collapse ‘imminent’

Evacuations expand as Manatee phosphate plant collapse ‘imminent’
Zachary T. Sampson, Tampa Bay Times
·7 min read

PALMETTO — Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Manatee County on Saturday as officials fear an “imminent” collapse at the old Piney Point phosphate plant could release a rush of polluted water into the surrounding area — and then into Tampa Bay itself.

The situation grew more dire as crews attempted to shore up a breach in a wall around a 480-million gallon wastewater reservoir that has been leaking for days. They used front-end loaders, excavators and dump trucks to pile dirt over the breach.

But at 10:30 a.m. Saturday the on-site engineers “deemed the situation to be escalating,” said Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur. One containment wall shifted to the side, he said, signaling a structural collapse could happen at any time.

An “immense amount of water” could rush out in a sheet within seconds or minutes if berms at the site crack wide open, said acting county administrator Scott Hopes.

The flood could be several feet high and move through the immediate area, he said, before it would flow toward the bay, where environmental advocates fear it could pose consequential harm to the ecosystem.

“If you have not evacuated please do so,” he told residents of the surrounding area. “We in the county are doing everything we can to mitigate the risk.”

There were about 15-20 houses in the initial evacuation zone. The Sheriff’s Office said all residents there were believed to have left safely. About 6 p.m. Saturday, the county announced that it was expanding the evacuation area to cover an estimated 316 homes, citing the possibility of a “large-scale breach.” The new order shifted the evacuations to the west and southwest.

The governor’s emergency order also includes Hillsborough and Pinellas counties due to their proximity to “an imminent hazard.” The DeSantis administration began sending pumps, cranes and other heavy equipment, Hopes said, because the county might need those tools in the event of a collapse.

“I don’t think we’re talking about a 30-foot tidal wave like when (Hurricane) Katrina went on the shore of Mississippi,” Hopes said.

But an engineer working at the site has previously described how an uncontrolled discharge could damage surrounding properties and a nearby highway.

A cell phone alert sent about 11 a.m. Saturday said that a collapse could happen at any time. The county advised anyone with questions about evacuating to call 3-1-1. Authorities said they did not believe the situation posed a danger to a nearby jail.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers closed U.S. 41 at 113th Street E in Manatee and College Avenue in Hillsborough County, according to a statement.

To be safe, the Department of Environmental Protection relocated a command post it had set up at Piney Point to the Manatee County Emergency Operations Center in Bradenton. Agency Secretary Noah Valenstein traveled to Tampa Bay on Saturday and updated the governor on the situation at Piney Point.

“We can take care of nutrients in the environment,” Valenstein told the Tampa Bay Times. “The bay is resilient. We can monitor and enforce and hold the company accountable.

“The imminent threat is public health.”

The situation worsened less than a day after workers on the property, which is owned by a company called HRK Holdings, noticed a “breakout of seepage” in a wall around the reservoir on Friday.

Overnight, Hopes said, county workers had hoped to contain that problem using fill dirt and rock.

“The attempt was to kind of plug the hole in the dam,” he said. “They reached a point when they were about to celebrate, and it blew through.”

According to the county, between 2 and 3 million gallons of water are believed to be flowing from the breach per day. As of Saturday afternoon, county officials said, an estimate suggested about 380 million gallons of wastewater were left in the reservoir.

All week, staffers at the old plant site across from Port Manatee have scrambled to drain polluted water from the pond. They want to lower the pressure created by the leak as it threatens to break apart dikes and berms. If they need to empty the reservoir entirely to resolve the leak, Hopes said it could take 10 to 12 days.

They are discharging the wastewater to Tampa Bay through the port.

Officials believe the incident could be the result of a tear in a plastic liner in the pond. They have not confirmed the cause.

Wastewater, Valenstein said, was flowing to Port Manatee at a rate of about 35 million gallons a day Saturday. At least 25 million gallons had been sent that way as of Thursday morning.

Environmental regulators will monitor water quality to track the effect of those releases.

For decades the old Piney Point plant has sat near the edge of Tampa Bay, threatening the region with ecological disaster. Polluted discharges have happened before, some reaching a nearby aquatic preserve.

The site was home to a fertilizer manufacturing business before being abandoned. Left behind were long phosphogypsum stacks — berms that rise above the surrounding area and need to be monitored because of the material’s radioactivity. Phosphogypsum is a byproduct of processing phosphate.

Florida is home to about two dozen such stacks.

In a statement issued late Saturday, Valenstein said the water in the leaking reservoir is not radioactive, though “there are elevated levels of nutrients and the water is acidic.”

The reservoir, according to regulators, holds a mix of seawater from an old dredging project at the port, rainwater and polluted water left by the fertilizer industry.

Environmentalists fear nutrients, including nitrogen, will fuel harmful algal blooms that could damage marine life in the estuary.

“We hope the contamination is not as bad as we fear, but are preparing for significant damage to Tampa Bay and the communities that rely on this precious resource,” said a statement from Justin Bloom, a board member of the clean water advocacy groups Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and Suncoast Waterkeeper.

Brooks Armstrong, head of People for Protecting Peace River and a critic of the phosphate mining industry, called the incident an “entirely predictable catastrophe”and blamed inadequate oversight of fertilizer production.

County leaders said Saturday that even if the 480-million gallon reservoir collapses, they hope other ponds on the site will not necessarily follow suit. While fish live in the reservoir that is in immediate danger, Hopes said, some of the other water may be more contaminated.

HRK Holdings has recently been in charge of managing waste at Piney Point. It bought the property to create what it calls Eastport, leasing space for storage and industrial businesses across from Port Manatee.

For years before, the state was in charge of the site through a court-appointed receiver, having been stuck with the gypsum stacks and contaminated ponds when the plant’s last owner went out of business.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried asked the governor to convene an emergency meeting of the state’s cabinet, so top officials can be briefed on the incident.

Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio both said they were following the situation and were prepared to seek federal help if needed. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said the Environmental Protection Agency plans to send someone to Piney Point to “assess the emerging crisis.”

Manatee County recently made finding a long-term solution for the gypsum stacks and wastewater ponds at Piney Point a priority, amid warnings that the reservoirs are quickly approaching capacity. Commissioners are asking for state funding to install an injection well that would pump the water deep underground.

Valenstein has said his agency would support that plan and that regulators have to “make sure this site is closed.”

Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Shannon Herbon said the state will hold the site’s owners accountable for any damage to natural resources.

“Right now,” she said, “our top priority is ensuring the ceasing of the breach.”