Rescue workers in central Florida worked on Sunday to prevent an environmental disaster at a leaking reservoir that risked sending millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater to nearby homes and into Tampa Bay.
More than 300 homes near the site of an abandoned phosphate mine and manure production facility in Manatee County were under mandatory evacuation orders, and Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday declared a state of emergency to release funds to deal with the crisis.
“What we are looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to the need for a truly catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis told a news conference after seeing the Helicopter Sunday website.
He said rescue workers, with the help of the Florida National Guard, pumped about 33 million gallons of water daily from an on-site wastewater tank, which has caused a growing leak in its plastic lining.
“According to on-site engineers, a controlled release was necessary to prevent a catastrophic failure,” the governor said.
The wastewater “meets water quality standards for marine waters,” he said, with the exception of phosphorus and nitrogen levels.
Marine algae thrive on such elements and environmental groups fear that millions of liters of nutrient-rich water released into the sea could trigger a deadly “red water” or algae bloom that could suffocate fish and other aquatic life and deter tourist activity. .
Manatee County Acting Administrator Scott Hopes said inmates and staff at the local jail had been moved to the second floor of the two-story building as a precaution.
Hopes left a slightly more optimistic note later on Sunday, saying the situation should be in a “much better position” by Tuesday.
But “we are not out in the critical area yet,” he warned.
A collapse of the reservoir also risked sending water to nearby stacks of phosphogypsum, a remnant of manure production.
Phosphogypsum is considered radioactive because it contains isotopes such as radon, as well as toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.
The National Conservation Group Center for Biological Diversity called on the US Environmental Protection Agency to participate.
“Federal officials must clean up this mess that the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately stop further production of phosphogypsum,” said Jaclyn Lopez, the organization’s Florida chief, in a statement.
Problems at the Piney Point Reservoir go back decades.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nicole Fried wrote to DeSantis, saying the current emergency was just the latest in a series of incidents.
“For more than 50 years, this mining operation in Central Florida has caused many disasters and incidents to human health and the environment,” she wrote, adding that there had been several deficiencies in the container’s feed in the past.
Hopes said the authorities wanted to permanently empty reservoirs at the site.
“We will not repair the feed, we will empty the ponds into their water and then we will move on to a permanent solution into the future once we have mitigated the current risk,” Hopes said.
This will “probably include filling these ponds after missing the contents and covering them.”
DeSantis said that the company that runs the website, HRK Holdings, should be held responsible.
“This is not acceptable and it is not something we will allow to continue,” he said.
HRK did not immediately respond to a request for comment.