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Toxic wastewater reservoir on verge of collapse in Florida could cause "catastrophic event"

Toxic wastewater reservoir in Florida may collapse
Toxic wastewater reservoir in Florida on brink of collapse 02:13

Hundreds of residents in Manatee County, Florida, were ordered to evacuate their homes over Easter weekend as officials feared that a wastewater pond could collapse "at any time." On Saturday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the area, and the local state of emergency was extended by county commissioners on Tuesday.

County officials said the pond, located at the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant, had a "significant leak," according to CBS affiliate WTSP-TV. The Manatee County Public Safety Department told people near the plant to evacuate due to an "imminent uncontrolled release of wastewater."

"A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally," said Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur, "signifying that structural collapse could occur at any time." 

Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes met with Manatee County commissioners Tuesday morning and said the situation remains "dynamic," but also signaled a more optimistic outlook. About two weeks after the latest issues were first detected at Piney Point, a team of engineers and experts was assembled.

Hopes said that the one leak of major concern at the moment is the one in the southeast corner of the south pond. On Sunday night, thermal imaging detected a change in temperatures in the pond that were thought to be another breach. Hopes said on Tuesday that further investigation showed that vegetation had sparked the temperature change, and that there was no second breach.

Water from the existing breach was previously emptying into Piney Point Creek, but Hopes said on Tuesday that this was no longer the case, and that the water is instead being diverted. Officials are pumping the breached water into a 35 million gallon pond that has a liner in it and has not been used at the Piney Point site. 

There are currently about 300 million gallons of water remaining in the reservoir, and officials are pumping out about 23,500 gallons per minute, Hopes told commissioners on Tuesday. There are two drone teams deployed monitoring the situation. 

Water sampled from the breached pond on Monday indicates that the water is not radioactive, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said on Monday, and the department is collaborating with surrounding counties and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to sample water from 11 locations and obtain water quality information. Water sample results are now available online, although the nutrient composition does not yet appear to be available. 

Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said on Tuesday that the water they are "putting into Tampa Bay is the least of the evils," and that what they are dealing with is "high levels of nutrients."

Hopes also said the water is not toxic, but that regardless, "it is a big problem." 

"The other ponds on that property and the property in and of itself is a problem. It is a wastewater compound. ... a majority of what we're dealing with is being contained on site."   

Hopes, as well as commissioners, said Tuesday that what is happening is not necessarily their fault because Piney Point is private property.

"We had to react as the local governing body in order to protect our citizens and our businesses," Hopes said. "We didn't create the problem, nor were we responsible for solving the problem." 

John Truitt, deputy secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, told commissioners Tuesday morning that there is no change in the stability of the gypsum stacks and that seepage rates aren't changing, which is "good news." 

Manatee County Public Safety Department initially sent out emergency evacuation notices on Friday for those who were within half a mile of Piney Point, and by 11 a.m. Saturday, evacuation orders were extended to people within one mile north of the reservoir's stacks of phosphogypsum — a fertilizer waste product — and those within half a mile to the south of the site. Surrounding stretches of highway were also closed to traffic, but reopened on Tuesday. 

Mandatory evacuations were extended an additional half mile west and one mile southwest of the site on Saturday evening. Manatee County Public Safety Department said that 316 households are within the full evacuation area.

Despite the mandatory evacuations for local residents, officials have not fully evacuated Manatee County Jail, which lies within the evacuation zone. On Sunday, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office told CBS News it would move 345 of the more than 1,000 inmates to an undisclosed but "secure" location as part of its effort to "free up bed space" for the remaining 721 inmates on the upper level of the jail.

Manatee County Jail evacuation zone
According to a map of the current evacuation zone around Piney Point reservoir in Florida, pictured on right, the Manatee County Jail, location shown on left via Google Maps, is well within the zone. CBS News

On Monday, however, the sheriff's office told CBS News that it had moved just 267 inmates "based on risk factors involving inmate classification." The inmates, the office said, were transported to a correctional facility in Polk County, and all inmates tested negative for COVID-19 prior to leaving. The inmates will be housed separately from Polk County inmates, according to the sheriff's office.

"Deputies are working on getting an additional 34 inmates awaiting prison sentences (currently on hold for COVID protocols) transferred to the Florida Department of Corrections," the office told CBS News. "As an added precaution we have the ability to move another 200 inmates to another facility (undisclosed at this time) if needed."

Saur told reporters at a press conference Monday afternoon that the inmates have been transported and "are safe."

State Representative Michele Rayner-Goolsby tweeted that she has spoken to the sheriff and said he has "assured" her that "there is a plan in place to make sure inmates at the jail are protected and evacuated safely."

"I am good with the plan," she added.

Upon evacuations being lifted on Tuesday, the inmates will return to the jail "in the very near future," Manatee County Sheriff's Office told CBS News on Wednesday morning. 

Also Sunday night, the Federal Aviation Administration issued temporary flight restrictions over the reservoir for Monday. 

On Monday morning, Manatee County schools announced that school bus transportation within the evacuation zone has been suspended. Students from six schools are impacted by the situation, according to the list of impacted buses. 

Wastewater Reservoir Leak
This aerial photo taken from an airplane shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine, Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Bradenton, Florida. Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald via AP

"We're hoping that we can just continue to get the water out in an efficient way to prevent a catastrophic event," DeSantis said. 

The original inundation map indicates that if the reservoir were to fully collapse, the area could see a "20-foot wall of water" within minutes. However, Hopes said on Tuesday morning that this was based on the original amount of water in the reservoir, and engineers are working on an updated inundation map based on how much water remains. 

Phosphogypsum is the "radioactive waste" left over from processing phosphate ore into a state that can be used for fertilizer, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

"In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals," the center said in a statement on Saturday. "For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates 5 tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous stacks hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall." 

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said in a statement Saturday that the "public must heed that notice to avoid harm." 

The water that is currently being pumped out by officials to avoid a full collapse is a mix of sea water from a local dredge project, storm water and rain runoff. The water has not been treated. 

"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 Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried wrote a letter to DeSantis on Saturday urging an emergency session of the Florida Cabinet to discuss the situation. She wrote that the leaking water is "contaminated, radioactive wastewater," and noted that this leak is not the property's first.

"For more than 50 years, this Central Florida mining operation has caused numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents," Fried wrote. "There have been numerous, well-documented failures — which continue today — of the property's reservoir liner, including leaks, poor welds, holes, cracks and weaknesses that existed prior to purchase by the current owner, HRK Holdings, and exacerbated since." 

On Sunday, Hopes corroborated that issues with the Piney Point facility have persisted for decades. While the governor on Sunday blamed the situation on HRK Holdings, the company that owns the site, and said it will be held accountable for the incident, Hopes indicated that the latest leak is the result of officials not acting on past failures. 

"It could have been resolved two decades ago," Hopes said. "What I've seen in the past four days from the governor's office is that all agencies and entities are now committed to a permanent resolution."

Meanwhile, the Florida National Guard deployed two CH-47 helicopters on Sunday to place two pumps at the site to lower the water level. The pumps should be running at full capacity by Monday morning, Hopes said at a Sunday afternoon press conference.

"The controlled release is working," he said. "The breach release is traveling in the direction that we anticipated and planned for so we believe that probably by Tuesday we're going to be in a much better position and the risk level will have decreased significantly with the governor's assets."

Authorities noted that Manatee County water is safe to drink and there is no threat to Lake Manatee, which is the primary source of drinking water. Well water was also not affected.

Officials describe lead up to latest incident

Video of a Manatee County Commissioners meeting provided insight into what happened prior to the leak. On Thursday afternoon, Jeff Barath, a representative for HRK Holdings, appeared emotionally distressed while briefing the Manatee County Commissioners about the situation.

"I'm very sorry," he said. He told commissioners he had only slept a few hours that week because he was trying to fix the situation, and through tears, said he first noticed "increased conductivities within the site's seepage collection system" 10 days prior on March 22. This system, he said, offers drainage around the gypsum stacks. 

April 1, 2021 - BCC Land Use Meeting by Manatee County Government on YouTube

He said he immediately notified FDEP of his concerns. 

"The water was changing around the seepage. We went into a very aggressive monitoring program," he said, to find out where the seepage was coming from.

They discovered the south side of the stack system had "increased in conductivity" and that the acidity of the water, which is normally around a 4.6, had dropped to about a 3.5, which indicated an issue. 

After a few days, the water chemistry had not improved and water flows were increasing from about 120 gallons a minute to more than 400 gallons per minute in less than 48 hours, Barath said. Last Saturday night, the flow rates increased to "rates that I could not even estimate to you," he said.

Water was filling the stacks so quickly that the ground was starting to rise, Barath said. This "bulging" was temporarily stabilized but then extended hundreds of feet. 

Barath submitted a report to the state on March 26, according to the state-run "Protecting Florida Together," website, which was created by DeSantis to allow more transparency about state water issues. 

"I was anticipating that the gypstack itself was destabilizing at a very rapid rate and recommended that we consider an emergency discharge," he told commissioners. He said he feared that "overpressurizing" the system would result in "complete failure." 

"I've spent most of my days and nights constantly monitoring all aspects of this gypstack system and identifying failure points within it," he said, noting that failure points were happening "constantly, I mean hourly." 

The Florida DEP said that it ordered the company to "take immediate action" to prevent further leaks. On March 30, the department said that "pipes at the facility are repaired" and controlled discharges were initiated to prevent any pressure buildup. 

However, based on Barath's testimony at the meeting, the situation was far from over. He concluded his address by saying they were doing "everything possible to prevent a true catastrophe." 

On Friday, another leak was detected in the south containment area of the facility. Despite overnight work to attempt to stop this and other leaks, Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur said on Saturday that the situation was "escalating."

April Siese contributed to this report.

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