A reservoir in Florida containing nearly 400 million gallons of sewage from a former phosphate mine leaked Saturday and sparked hundreds of evacuations, authorities said.
The crews “did their best to control the runoff of contaminated water into a creek at Piney Point, Florida, the site of a former phosphate mine south of Tampa,” said Vanessa Baugh, chairman of the Manatee County Commission.
The spill was an “imminent hazard” that represented “an imminent and significant threat to human health, safety, welfare and the environment,” said Governor Ron DeSantis, who issued a state of emergency order.
On March 26, an initial leak was reported in the 79 acre reservoir that is part of a pond system. However, the situation has worsened in the last few days.
Recognition…Tiffany Tompkins / The Bradenton Herald, via Associated Press
A sudden, uncontrolled break could flood homes in the area and turn upside down piles of phosphogypsum, a by-product of phosphate mining, that hold the ponds.
According to the Federal Environment Protection Agency, phosphogypsum contains “significant amounts” of radioactive substances such as uranium and radium. Noah Valenstein, secretary of the State Department of Environmental Protection, said Saturday night that the water has “elevated nutrient levels” but is not radioactive.
According to official figures, water leaked at a rate of two to three million gallons a day. On March 26, there were 480 million gallons of water in the reservoir. The Florida Department of Environment said there were 390 million gallons left on Saturday morning.
Workers attempted to repair the break by reinforcing the reservoir wall on Friday, but were “unfortunately unsuccessful,” Ms. Baugh said.
As part of a state emergency, water was pumped into Tampa Bay at 22,000 gallons per minute to relieve pressure on the reservoir walls.
The drained water is seawater – mostly salt water from a dredging project – “mixed with old process water and rainwater runoff / precipitation,” according to a website that tracks developments with the reservoir.
“The water meets marine water quality standards with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, and total ammonia nitrogen,” said the Florida Department of Environment. “It is slightly acidic, but not to the extent that it is expected to be a problem, nor is it expected to be toxic.”
A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for 316 homes, the Manatee County Public Security Department said. The Florida Highway Patrol has also closed sections of US-41 in Manatee and Hillsborough Counties.
Manatee County Jail was in the evacuation zone but was not evacuated. Randy Warren, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, said moving inmates and staff to the upper levels of the facility was “our best option at this time” and that “sandbags and other precautions have been taken around the prison grounds.”
Pumps, “vac trucks” and over 100,000 bottles of water have been sent to the area, Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said on Twitter.
George Kruse, a Manatee County officer, said he was with a group of engineers who were investigating the reservoir when they discovered it was no longer safe to be anywhere near Piney Point.
“We all raced off the piles as quickly as possible,” he said in a Facebook video.
Speaking of the potential for a major, catastrophic breach, he said, “It could be any minute, or it could be down the street, or it might not happen.”
“The feeling is that this,” he said, pointing to the reservoir in the background, far behind him, “could go sooner rather than later.”
An EPA spokeswoman Brandi Jenkins said the agency’s officials “are closely monitoring the current situation and are in close communication with local officials”.
The phosphate plant was established at Piney Point in 1966 and was inactive in 2001, The Miami Herald reported. The facility has faced other disasters: in 2003, treated wastewater was pumped into the ocean, and in 2011 a breach led wastewater to a port.