2nd Breach Concern in Florida Phosphate Reservoir

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -
A overview of the Piney Point wastewater reservoir is seen before a leak in its containment wall, near Tampa Bay, Florida, U.S. in this Maxar Technologies satellite image taken on October 30, 2020. (Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS)

A drone discovered a possible second breach in a large Florida wastewater reservoir as more pumps were headed to the site to prevent a catastrophic flood, officials said Monday.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican, toured the area by helicopter Monday and said federal resources were committed to assisting the effort to control the 77-acre (33-hectare) Piney Point reservoir in Manatee County, just south of the Tampa Bay area.

“I think we are making some progress,” Buchanan said. “This is something that has been going on too long. Now, I think everybody is focused on this.”

Fears of a complete breach at an old phosphate plant led authorities to evacuate more than 300 homes, close portions of a major highway and move several hundred jail inmates nearby to a second floor of the facility.

The primary concern is that a total breach of the reservoir would cause major flooding to nearby homes and businesses, officials said. The pumps are meant to slowly drain the water and divert it to Tampa Bay, which could lead to negative environmental consequences such as fish kills and algae blooms.

Scott Hopes, the Manatee County administrator, said the additional pumps should increase the capacity for a controlled release of the water from about 35 million gallons (about a 132 million liters) a day to between 75 million and 100 million gallons a day.

“This has become a very focused local, state and national issue,” Hopes said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the water in the pond is primarily saltwater mixed with wastewater and stormwater. It has elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and is acidic, but not expected to be toxic, the agency says.

Still, the EPA says too much nitrogen in the wastewater causes algae to grow faster, leading to fish kills. Some such blooms can also harm humans who come into contact with polluted waters, or eat tainted fish.

Dale Rucker, a hydrologist and former editor of the Journal of Environmental and Engineering Geophysics, says the leak is a reminder that governments need to pay attention to aging infrastructure that could endanger the environment and put communities at serious risk.

“Continued neglect can have serious environmental consequences like we are seeing,” Rucker said. “These environmental catastrophes are going to happen with higher probability.”