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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.

ACLU Files Emergency Petition On Behalf Of Manatee County Jail Inmates In Piney Point Evacuation Zone

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Daylina Miller WUSF news
Many surrounding roads were closed, including U.S Highway 41, were closed due to the leaking waste water reservoir.

The ACLU filed a class-action petition last week for the emergency release of people incarcerated in Manatee County Jail due to the leak of polluted water at a nearby phosphate plant.

When it became clear April 2 that a reservoir at the former Piney Point phosphate plant was in danger of collapsing, officials raced to evacuate over 300 homes and businesses that risked being flooded by an enormous amount of toxic water.

However, the Manatee County Jail, less than a mile away from the plant, only evacuated 267 inmates.

The jail is within the mandatory evacuation zone, but at least 700 individuals still remained in custody.

That possible collapse led to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Larry Eger, public defender of the 12th Judicial Dourt, to file an emergency petition to release or transfer people incarcerated in the Manatee County Jail.

“We thought it was conflicting. You have a mandate from the county that it’s unsafe while at the same time it’s ostensibly perfectly safe to be in the jail that’s in the evacuation zone,” ACLU staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson told the Bradenton Herald. “Those ideas seemed to be contradictory.”

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The Manatee County Jail, less than a mile away from the plant, only evacuated 267 inmates during the county wide evacuation.

The 77-acre wastewater reservoir in the Piney Point area started leaking in late March, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a State of Emergency April 3, citing the potential for a “real catastrophic flood situation.”

Officials warned that if the reservoir collapsed, a projected 20 feet of wastewater containing toxins and pollutants could flood the area.

The ACLU petition filed against Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells warned that people detained at the jail, as well as employees, could have been trapped on upper levels of the building.

Read more here: WUSF’s continuing coverage of the Piney Point leak

Wells told the Herald, “I guess they wanted to move (1,066) inmates, which is never going to happen.”

The evacuation order was lifted on Tuesday -- the same day the petition was filed -- after officials said the potential for a collapse was lowered.

But Jacqueline Azis, a staff attorney with the ACLU, told the Herald, “The fact remains that the jail was in the mandatory evacuation zone, so whether it was going to be 20 feet or a couple of feet, flooding potential was there, even just a couple feet of flooding presents a dangerous situation for the jail.”

Azis added that they were seeking to remove the incarcerated people, either by transfer or release, to alleviate what she called unconstitutional conditions.

“Many of the individuals in custody at the jail simply don’t need to be in there in the first place,” Azis said. “They are only in custody because they cannot afford their pretrial freedom.”

Alaina Martinez, the founder of the Leaders Rights Organization in Sarasota who also spoke to the Herald, said, “It shows that the lives of the inmates are not valued, if residents were evacuated, then the same standard should be applied.”

Leali Shalabi is a WUSF/ USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for the spring of 2021.
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