SARASOTA, Fla. – Crews on Tuesday pumped enough wastewater from a retention pond into Tampa Bay to control the threat of a catastrophic breach that had the potential to send a massive wall of water into the surrounding area.
Last week, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection approved the pumping of industrial wastewater from a retention pond at Piney Point, a former phosphate plant, in response to the facility’s second leak in a decade. The wastewater is about as acidic as black coffee and contains elevated levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which can feed the algae that causes red tide.
After pumping more than 30 million gallons of wastewater each day into Tampa Bay, the amount of water in the Piney Point retention pond has dropped to under 300 million gallons, down from approximately 480 million gallons last week at this time.
More than 300 homes and multiple businesses in the area around Piney Point were evacuated. The order was lifted Tuesday afternoon after officials determined there no longer is a threat of catastrophic flooding, a sign that the immediate crisis appears to be over, even as major environmental concerns remain.
Visual explainer: How crews pumped wastewater into Tampa Bay to hold off breach, flood in Florida
Here’s what we know Tuesday:
How has the threat of a reservoir breach progressed?
Engineers have been pumping large amounts of water out of the wastewater containment pond to ease pressure on the breach in the pond wall. As that continues, Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said the threat of a wall failure is waning.
“It’s not getting worse, which is good news,” John Truitt, the deputy secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said Tuesday morning.
By Tuesday afternoon, the situation had further improved.
“This is very much under control now,” said Hopes said.
Map: See the wastewater leak in Florida
Is there a second breach in the Piney Point retention pond?
While the leaking wastewater containment pond wall at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site continues to be a critical situation, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said Monday concerns about a possible second breach in the wall have proven to be unfounded.
Manatee County officials said that a drone with thermal imaging equipment identified a possible second breach in the wall at 2 a.m. Monday. An investigation later determined the area identified was not another wall failure, according to the department.
“Our technical team and our engineers came in and evaluated and determined there was no second breach,” said department spokeswoman Shannon Herbon.
What are the environmental impacts of pumping wastewater into Tampa Bay?
Environmental groups say they worry recent releases from a Piney Point wastewater treatment facility will eventually fuel an algae bloom that could impact coastal Southwest Florida.
Nutrient-rich waters from the treatment facility will offset natural balances in the coastal estuaries and will eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where red tide initiates.
The region was partially crippled during a 17-month red tide bloom that started in the fall of 2017 and lasted until the spring of 2019.
More:Piney Point waters may fuel harmful algae bloom along Southwest Florida coast
State and county officials are looking for ways to clean the water and keep it from being discharged into Tampa Bay.
Hopes, the Manatee County administrator, said he is working with a company that can store 150 million gallons in portable tanks, which can be shipped in overnight from Pennsylvania and Texas.
Hopes said there also are discussions about pumping water into tankers and barges, that would then transport the water to a Louisiana company that can dispose of it through deep injection wells.
Hopes said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is setting up reverse osmosis treatment system on the Piney Point property to clean up water.
“I think we’re going to see over the course of the next few days a decrease of what’s going in the bay,” Hopes said. “The goal is to keep as much of this onsite as possible.”
What will happen to Piney Point once this crisis is over?
State lawmakers are pushing a bill to fund a complete cleanup and closure of the phosphogypsum stacks at Piney Point with American Rescue Plan funds, an effort that could cost upwards of $200 million.
Monday evening, Republican state Senate President Wilton Simpson announced the Senate will consider a budget amendment Wednesday when it considers Senate Bill 2500, known as the General Appropriations Act.
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