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Florida Homes Are Evacuated After Leak At Wastewater Reservoir

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Authorities in Florida declared a state of emergency near Tampa. They've told hundreds of homeowners to evacuate because a pond holding millions of gallons of waste water is at risk of bursting. Emergency crews hope to prevent disaster. Here's Steve Newborn of our member station WUSF.

STEVE NEWBORN, BYLINE: About 300 million gallons remain in an elevated retention pond in Manatee County, south of Tampa. A week ago, engineers found a leak, but by last Friday, it had gotten bigger. So they've been removing about 33 million gallons a day, trying to reduce the immense pressure that could cause the earthen walls of the pond to collapse. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency, sending in the National Guard to drop off pumps to siphon water.

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RON DESANTIS: What we're looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation.

NEWBORN: More than 300 homes are in the evacuation area, which is mostly agricultural and industrial. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said people living in the path of the water needed to get out.

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SCOTT HOPES: We're down to about 340 million gallons that could reach in totality in a period of - of minutes. And the models for less than an hour are as high of a 20-foot wall of water.

NEWBORN: Hopes said earlier - called a breach in the dike imminent, but said that's less likely since the water is being pumped into nearby Tampa Bay. The leaking pond is part of a fertilizer processing complex that closed 20 years ago when the owners declared bankruptcy. It was emptied but later filled with seawater and dredged material used to deepen channels at nearby Port Manatee. Across Florida, there are two dozen retention ponds similar to this one that are at risk. Administrator Hopes says the state just needs to deal with them.

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HOPES: This could have been resolved over two decades ago.

NEWBORN: If this retention pond breaches, there are two other holding ponds nearby that could rupture. They hold about 400 million gallons of phosphate wastewater. They contain heavy metals and slightly radioactive gypsum, which could affect the ecology of the surrounding area.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Newborn in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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