© 2023 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
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.

Governor Orders State Of Emergency With Massive Piney Point Breach Expected

Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes speaks from behind a lectern during a press  conference about Piney Point
Manatee County
Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said officials tried overnight to plug a hole on sidewall of the breached Piney Point reservoir.

The emergency order follows the closure of parts of U.S. 41 in Manatee and Hillsborough counties and the evacuation of homes and businesses in the area.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Saturday issued a state of emergency for Manatee County with the release of hundreds of millions of gallons likely from a leaking phosphate processing pond that is expected to breach at any moment.

The order follows the closure of parts of U.S. 41 in Manatee and Hillsborough counties and the evacuation of homes and businesses in the area on Friday and Saturday after attempts to plug a hole in the walls of the giant Piney Point gypsum stack failed.

Officials issued an emergency evacuation notification at 11 a.m. for people within a mile to the north of the reservoir and a half mile to the south. The order was expanded around 6 p.m. a half mile west and to Moccasin Wallow Road on the southwest. There are 316 homes in the evacuation area.

“Our first concern is to protect the people who live and do business in the area,” Manatee County Commission chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said in a statement. “The public must heed that notice to avoid harm.”

Manatee County Evacuation zone
Manatee County

Manatee County officials also declared a state of emergency to ensure resources are allocated for the response and recovery.

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. To fully empty the reservoir in that way could take up to 10-12 days, officials said.

U.S. 41 is closed at Moccasin Wallow Road in Manatee and at College Avenue in Hillsborough County.

Industrial traffic going to and from Port Manatee was being allowed to continue.

"Thankfully the evacuation area does not include any major residential areas, and the homes within Artisan Lakes are not in the evacuation area," Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur said in a release. "If you live within the evacuation area, you need to find shelter with friends and family outside of the evacuation zone now."

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

The reservoir contained 480 million gallons of wastewater before HRK Holdings began discharging some of it to Port Manatee earlier in the week. Between 2 million and 3 million gallons of water per day was flowing out of the breach in the pond and officials estimated that there were roughly 380 million gallons remaining on Saturday.

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."

There is fear two other holding ponds could be affected if the pond with the breach collapses. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said the other two contain about 400 million gallons of phosphate process wastewater. Unlike the other pond, these two are believed to contain heavy metals and slightly radioactive gypsum, which could significantly impact the ecology of the surrounding area.

"Among those three ponds, you're almost looking at a billion gallons," Hopes said. "If we maintain control, the concern is should you have full breach - think of a dam opening up - that runs the risk of destabilizing the walls of the other area. So we look at the risk factor - the risk factor is really the release of nearly a billion gallons."

If a collapse does occur, Hopes said it is expected to flow to the north of the site, where there are several borrow pits from mining and lower-lying areas that could absorb some of the water.

Few people live in the mainly agricultural area, he said.

County and state officials had tried to plug the leak overnight on Saturday with rock and sand but they were unsuccessful.

"They reached a point where they were about to celebrate and then it blew through," Hopes said.

The initial leak was in a thick vinyl liner in the base of the east, southeast corner of the pool.

"The concern is if that liner continues to unzip so to speak because it's probably at a seam, when that opens up you will see the crevasses where the breach has occurred continue to unzip," Hopes said. "We're all just trying to ensure that we have an accurate projection of the flow and where we need to mitigate so we still have some level of control of where the water is directed."

Newspapers were my first love, but public radio stole my heart from the moment I tuned in during college.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.