Crews were working around the clock on Monday to prevent the collapse of a wastewater reservoir’s leaky containment wall near Tampa Bay, Florida, making steady progress after officials warned of an imminent threat of flooding over the weekend.
The worsening leak in the containment wall at Piney Point wastewater reservoir, which holds 480 million gallons, prompted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency on Saturday over concerns that stacks of phosphogypsum waste, primarily from fertiliser manufacturing, could collapse at the plant and cause dangerous flooding.
“What we are looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis said at a Sunday press conference after flying over the old Piney Point phosphate mine.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the water in the pond is primarily saltwater mixed with wastewater and storm water. It has elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and is acidic, but not expected to be toxic, the agency says.
Authorities have closed off portions of the US Highway 41 and ordered the evacuations of 316 homes. Some families were placed in local hotels.
Manatee County Sheriff’s officials began evacuating about 345 inmates from a local jail about 1.6 kilometres (one mile) away from the 77-acre pond first floor on Sunday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said models show the area could be covered with between 30cm (one foot) to 1.5 metres (five feet) of water, and the second floor is three metres (10 feet) above ground.
Officials first announced that they would move people and staff to the second story and put sandbags on the ground floor, but Sheriff Rick Wells later said moving all the inmates to the second floor posed a security risk.
County officials say well water remains unaffected and there is no threat to Lake Manatee, the area’s primary source of drinking water.
Crews have been discharging water since the pond began leaking in March. On Friday, a significant leak that was detected escalated the response and prompted the first evacuations and a declaration of a state of emergency on Saturday. A portion of the containment wall in the reservoir shifted, leading officials to think a collapse could occur at any time.
Today I joined state officials in Manatee County who are actively responding to Piney Point and deploying all necessary resources. Please follow @FLSERT and @FLDEPNews for updates and monitor local alerts and evacuation orders. https://t.co/ACdrUdOkpO pic.twitter.com/ayOGoLR3Oo
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) April 4, 2021
Hopes, the county administrator, said on Sunday that with new state resources, crews will be nearly doubling the amount of water being pumped out of the pond and taken to Port Manatee. Currently about 22,000 gallons of water are being discharged per minute, and Hopes said he expects the risk of collapse to decrease by Tuesday.
Early on Sunday, officials saw an increase of water leaking out, but Hopes said it seems to have plateaued. The water running out on its own is going to Piney Point creek and into Cockroach Bay, an aquatic preserve in the Tampa Bay north of the facility.
But Hopes said he could not rule out that a full breach could destabilise the walls of the other ponds at the Piney Point site.
The Florida DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said another pond has higher levels of metals.
“The radiologicals are still below surface water discharge standards. So, again this is not water we want to see leaving the site,” he said.
Officials said the federal Environmental Protection Agency is sending a representative to be at the command centre in Manatee County. The agency did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment.
Calls to the owner of the site, HRK Holdings, for comments went unanswered on Saturday and Sunday.
State authorities say the water in the breached pond is not radioactive.