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Phosphate processing plants in the greater Tampa Bay region have caused some of Florida's worst environmental disasters. Accidents like the spill at the former Piney Point plant fill the history books in Florida.

Evacuation Orders Issued For Areas Around Leaking Piney Point Plant

Photo from press conference
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New Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes, center, with State Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, at his right, during Friday night's press conference.

Evacuation orders were given late Friday to homes and businesses surrounding the leaking Piney Point processing plant in Manatee County.

An evacuation order was given late Friday for homes and businesses surrounding the leaking Piney Point phosphate processing pond in Manatee County.

The alert went out about 6 p.m. Friday, after another break was spotted in the walls of the giant gypsum stack. The stack has been leaking since last weekend and crews have been pumping 22,000 gallons a minute into a pipe leading to nearby Port Manatee to relieve stress on the gypstack's earthen walls.

Evacuation orders had been given out earlier Friday to homes and businesses to the south of the closed phosphate processing plant. But new Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said during a Friday night news conference that a Manatee Sheriff's helicopter saw a new leak on the north wall, prompting the evacuation order to the north.

"The hope is that with the flow rate coming out of the siphon pipes, that we can rapidly deplete the water and the pressure, and avoid a full breach," Hopes said.

About 15 to 20 homes are in the affected area. Officials said they are providing sandbags to a gas processing plant just to the south.

Officials said it could take up to 10 to 12 days to fully empty the stack — if that becomes necessary.

State environmental officials have not given a blanket permit to remove all the water, just "an amount necessary to ensure stabilization of the pond's walls," according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Weesam Khoury.

The reservoir contained 480 million gallons of wastewater before HRK Holdings began discharging some of it to Port Manatee earlier in the week. At least 25 million gallons had been discharged before the new leak was reported.

This is the same processing plant whose earthen walls were breached twice in the past 20 years, pouring tainted water into Tampa Bay.

In 2001, a tropical storm forced the release of 10 million gallons of water into Bishop Harbor. Another 170 million gallons were released in 2011, killing untold numbers of fish and marine life in Tampa Bay after heavy rains caused part of the dike at the closed plant to collapse.

But state environmental officials siphoned most of the water used in the production of phosphate fertilizer after the plant closed, Hopes said. That water contained toxic byproducts, such as heavy metals.

This time, Hopes said the pond is full mostly of dredged material used to deepen channels at nearby Port Manatee, as well as seawater. The water contains nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen, which could contribute to algae blooms in Tampa Bay.

The state Department of Environmental Protection reported: "The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen. It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be concern, nor is it expected to be toxic."

State Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, said he hopes this will be the beginning of a process to cap and close the stacks.

"If there's only one silver lining with this, hopefully everyone can realize now that this has got to end," Robinson said. "We have got to stop and clean this property up. I don't care if it's private property, I don't care if it's gone through bankruptcy and foreclosure, now this property has got to be finally cleaned up so we can get this off the minds of our residents. We're committed to be doing that."

A map of the area
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
This map shows the Piney Point plant at the lower right, with the discharge lines leading to Port Manatee, at the left

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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