Last Friday, Florida authorities discovered a breach at an industrial wastewater reservoir that could send nearly 300 million gallons of industrial wastewater cascading into the Tampa Bay Area. In addition to the industrial wastewater, which contains pollutants that contribute to harmful algal blooms, a full breach of the containment reservoir could unearth the gypsum stacks that contain radioactive materials such as uranium and radium. Since Friday, Florida has declared a state of emergency and is intentionally draining the contaminated reservoir into Tampa Bay just three miles away, to avoid a worst-case scenario.

Florida works to avoid ‘catastrophic’ pond collapse

Five Takeaways

  1. Piney Point is an industrial site and former phosphate (fertilizer) plant that contains significant quantities of harmful mining byproducts: contaminated wastewater and phosphogypsum (a radioactive solid).
  2. A leak was discovered at one of reservoirs, and now authorities believe that the breach could worsen and lead to a complete collapse of the reservoir’s embankment. This would send nearly 350 million gallons of nutrient-rich wastewater into the Tampa Bay area in a matter of minutes and through a “20-foot wall of water.”
  3. In an attempt to avoid an all-at-once breach, Florida authorities are pumping roughly 35 million gallons of wastewater a day from the compromised reservoir and sending it into Tampa Bay.
  4. The nutrient-rich wastewater can produce and intensify harmful algal blooms, which have plagued Florida’s coasts for years and are ecologically destructive.
  5. The reservoir once held 480 million gallons of wastewater. On Saturday, it was estimated to have 390 million gallons. And today, Monday April 5th, just shy of 300 million gallons of wastewater remain. 90 million gallons of nutrient-rich, harmful algal bloom promoting, wastewater has entered Tampa Bay.

 How Did this Happen?

The looming disaster at Piney Point is not a new one. The industrial plant first opened in 1966. Since then, the property has changed hands twice, experienced several harmful “accidents” and discharges, yet Florida state and local authorities have failed to effectively address Piney Point’s toxic remnants. The situation has been complicated by the holding companies declaring bankruptcy. Tampa Bay Water Keeper said, “we should use this terrible failure to inform the public and our elected officials that we will hold those responsible accountable,” on their social media. Stakeholders and politicians are hoping that a permanent solution for Piney Point and other ignored sources of pollutants.

“We need our state legislature to introduce meaningful policy that holds polluters accountable for environmental impacts like this,” said Captains for Clean Water Co-Founder Capt. Chris Wittman. “The Florida legislature has systematically dismantled regulations to serve and benefit special interests. These special interests—in this case phosphate mining—are profiting off of Florida’s resources at the expense of our state’s citizens and environment. They make their profits, exhaust the resource, and then leave the mess to taxpayers. We have to see new legislation that prevents special interests from continuing this kind of bad business that exploits our state and its citizens.”

Unfortunately this disaster appears to have been completely preventable. According to Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, “The current failure at the Piney Point facility owned by HRK was preventable. FDEP knew of the failures of the liner not only at Piney Point but other Phosphogypsum stacks. FDEP failed to provide the resources needed to remove the water from the stacks at the site and knew as early as 2013 about the need to remove water from the stacks.”

Piney Point’s Effect on Tampa Bay’s Ecosystem

Millions of gallons of wastewater have been released into Tampa Bay. For years, the Piney Point reservoirs have contained significant amounts of process water, a chemical byproduct of phosphate mining that has high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, “the water being discharged from Piney Point is mixed sea water (primarily saltwater from the Port Manatee dredge project, mixed with legacy process water and stormwater runoff/rainfall). The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen.” Those are concerning and destructive exceptions, especially when considering the levels of pollutants. “At the current rate of wastewater discharge nearly 500 tons of Nitrogen are on track to be released in the course of about a week. This is equivalent to approximately 100,000 bags of fertilizer, though levels of Nitrogen may vary throughout the water column in the stack and these numbers are an estimate, based on recent samples,” according to Tampa Bay Waterkeeper.

Compared to a complete collapse of the reservoir–which would expose radioactive mining byproducts, according to authorities on the ground–these discharges seem like a small price to pay in the scheme of things. However, the ecological concern now is with harmful algal blooms. The discharged wastewater contains high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which are known to cause or contribute to fish-killing harmful algal blooms.

Past example of harmful algae in Tampa Bay, courtesy of Rusty Chinnis

Tampa Bay area fishing Capt. Justin Moore, a second generation fishing guide who has been a captain since 1999, said he’s deeply concerned that the nutrient-rich water being released will cause harmful algae blooms. “I just don’t know how much more these bays can take,” Moore said. “It’s really unfortunate to see the ecosystem go through this again when this really could have been prevented.” Moore said he took a boat ride recently around the area where the water is being dumped and said there is already a change in watercolor. The water normally is clear this time of year, but Moore said it currently is a greenish yellow. There were no birds, hardly any mullet, you can tell the fish are sensing it and moving away from it,” Moore said.

Florida is no stranger to these harmful algal events. Red tides and other forms of toxic algae have harmed vast stretches of Florida’s ecosystems and its outdoor recreation and tourism economies. We are learning a great deal about these events, but nutrients continue to pollute water and encourage these semi-natural event. If Piney Point gives us one lesson, it’s this: strict regulations and proactive environmental mitigation are often needed to effectively protect the environment. Too often private entities just pack up and leave, relying on the taxpayer to clean up their mess–oftentimes climbing into the billions.

We’ll be following this developing situation closely, but authorities are hopeful the situation will become stable tomorrow, Tuesday. In the meantime, I’ll reiterate Capt. Chris Wittman’s point: “They make their profits, exhaust the resource, and then leave the mess to taxpayers. We have to see new legislation that prevents special interests from continuing this kind of bad business that exploits our state and its citizens.”

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  1. This is happening everywhere. Here in my neighborhood used to be part of a private well system until the city of Chesapeake Virginia took it over a few years ago. While that was commendable, they neglected to change the lead pipes and has led to at least 2 times high ecoli was registered in the system. Quite a few residents in this neighborhood don’t drink this water and neither will I. It is ok for flushing the toilet and showering, as for drinking NO.

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