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Environment

Evacuation Order Near Piney Point Lifted As Officials Optimistic A Breach Can Be Averted

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Manatee County Public Safety
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The hope is that the approximately 26 additional pumps would increase the amount of water being removed from the plant to up to 100 million gallons a day.

An evacuation order that was issued near the site of the Piney Point processing plant in northern Manatee County has been lifted as officials expressed optimism the reservoir will not breach.

The lifting of the evacuation order Tuesday afternoon affected residents living and working near the former phosphate processing plant.

In a tweet Tuesday afternoon, Manatee County officials say data "shows diminished risk for outlying areas."

Also Tuesday, the Manatee County Commission voted to pump the remaining water from the phosphogypsum stacks into a deep injection well on nearby county-owned land.

"The residents and business owners of north Manatee can rest assured that the water atop those stacks will be treated before it goes into the well and then kept to ensure no other water enters that well," said Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh.

There are still concerns. Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials estimate 165 million gallons of wastewater have already been released into a channel at Port Manatee on Tampa Bay. And water samples are being taken continuously to measure the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. 41 reopened, days after it was shut down as part of the evacuation.

The reopening and lifting of the evacuation came ahead of optimism from county officials that the leaking processing plant will avoid a major breach that would send millions of gallons of water into the surrounding community, as was feared earlier this week.

Manatee County Public Safety officials announced the reopening Tuesday after consulting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Emergency Management, according to a news release.

Engineers and specialists with the Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies continued to work at the plant Tuesday morning.

Engineers have been working around the clock to stabilize the leak and avoid catastrophic flooding, while pumping water out of the 480-million gallon phosphate plant reservoir.

On Tuesday morning, the water level was at 300 million gallons.

During Tuesday morning's Manatee County Commission meeting, County Administrator Scott Hopes said the Department of Emergency Management coordinated the installation of around 26 pumps to release the water from the reservoir.

Hopes said officials are analyzing data from Tuesday morning and should be able to report better news this afternoon.

While the Manatee County Emergency Operations Center was at a Level 1 full activation with all emergency support functions reporting to the state EOC, Hopes said earlier Tuesday he believes "that may change later in the day when we get the determination that we may longer be at risk of a full breach."

"We will be able to most likely be able to report that we are moving out of that critical stage of potential full breach to something that's far better contained and the risk level will be lower this afternoon," Hopes said.

During the meeting, Hopes said that not all of the contaminated water is flowing directly into Tampa Bay.

Officials said that water leaking from a breach in the earthen dam at a rate of about 70,000 gallons a day is being diverted into a 35-million-gallon lined pond.

Hopes said that is important because that water is coming out of the bottom of the reservoir and is the most contaminated.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried also weighed in on the massive spill after getting an aerial tour of the leaking pond at the former phosphate plant.

“Florida is one of the most amazing states in the nation with some of the best natural resources in the world,” Fried said, “and if we are destroying our environment and not doing anything to protect it, we are destroying the future of our state.”

According to a Tuesday afternoon update from the DEP:

  • Around 303 million gallons remain in the reservoir. More than 35 million gallons per day are being removed through pumps, vacuum trucks and other water management activities.
  • Controlled discharges to Port Manatee are ongoing to reduce the volume in order to lessen the pressure and stabilize the system. To date, approximately 165 million gallons have been discharged to the port.
  • There is one area of concentrated seepage from the east wall.

ALSO READ: Piney Point Wastewater Dump Could Be Largest In Tampa Bay History

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan toured the area by helicopter and said federal resources were committed to assisting the effort to control the 77-acre reservoir.

"Everybody might be well intended, but this is something that's been going on for too long," Buchanan said during a news conference Monday. "And we're going to come together, I think, collectively, between the county and the state and the federal government, to make sure we get this resolved quickly."

"Enough's enough. So I'm angry about it, quite frankly, and I'm going to bring that intensity to make sure that we're doing what we've got to do to get this fixed."

State and local agencies will provide additional updates during a press conference at 4 p.m.

This is a developing story. Stay with WUSF for updates.

Health News Florida editor Julio Ochoa contributed to this report.

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