After the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced a break was detected on Friday in one of the walls of a 77-acre (33-hectare) pond holding millions of gallons of water containing phosphorus and nitrogen from an old phosphate plant, an unsuccessful attempt to plug the hole with materials continued into Saturday.
A state of emergency for Manatee County was declared by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Saturday due to a significant leak at a large reservoir of wastewater at the Piney Point industrial site.
According to the executive order declaring the state of emergency, the breached pond contains 480 million gallons (1.8 billion litres) of seawater mixed with process water and the embankment materials from an old fertiliser manufacturing plant.
The state of emergency will ensure that more pumping equipment and cranes are dispatched to the affected area.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried urged the governor in a letter to convene an emergency session of the state cabinet to discuss the current incident, while pointing to the fact the property had witnessed similar leaks in the past.
“The immediate evacuation of residents, disruption of families during Easter weekend, and potential environmental catastrophe requires the attention and action of Florida’s statewide elected leadership,” said Fried.
Initially, the hole was detected on Friday in one of the walls of the 77-acre (33-hectare), 25 ft. (8 meter) deep pond.
After the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced the discovery, efforts were made to block the leak using rocks and other materials, yet the attempts proved futile.
Florida officials have since warned that a collapse of the stack of phosphogypsum at the Piney Point industrial site was “imminent,” threatening to flood roads.
2) Florida Department of Environmental Protection said draining (the wastewater pools) was the only way to prevent "a containment failure and catastrophic release."
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) April 3, 2021
The waste product from manufacturing fertiliser is radioactive, as it contains small amounts of naturally occurring radium and uranium, while the stacks can also release large concentrations of radon gas.
More than 300 homes have received evacuation orders, as a highway near the large reservoir in the Tampa Bay area north of Bradenton was sealed off on Saturday.
Residents in proximity to the Piney Point reservoir received a text message alert, with authorities expanding the evacuation area later Saturday while refraining from opening any shelters.
Concerns have been voiced that the water from the reservoir could flood the agricultural area.
“We are talking about the potential of about 600 million gallons (2.3 billion litres) within a matter of seconds and minutes leaving that retention pool and going around the surrounding area,” said Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes at a press conference on Saturday.
According to the official, if the reservoir were to collapse, it could destabilise the walls of other areas in the vicinity.
“The pond is basically salt water. We saw ducks yesterday, there are snooks swimming in there. It’s sustaining wildlife. That’s not the case for the other two pools,” said Hopes.
According to the official, the wastewater contained in the other reservoirs would need to be treated to reduce ammonium content and other materials. While pumping the entire reservoir of water would require approximately 10 to 12 days, workers have been rushing against time to bring the volume down.
Ahead of a potential burst, attempts are also being made to map a path to control the possible water flow from the pond into Tampa Bay.
There has not yet been any official comment from the owner of the site, HRK Holdings.
In a similar incident, over 200 million gallons of contaminated waste water from a Polk County fertiliser plant leaked into the Floridan aquifer serving as Florida’s main underground potable water supply in August 2016. The incident occurred when a 45-foot diameter sinkhole developed beneath a “gypsum stack” storage reservoir.
Since the 1960s, toxic solid waste from fertiliser production in Florida – a key centre of phosphate mining -has been accumulating, with some stored in tall piles occasionally spanning more than 600 acres.
Overall, there are at least 70 gypsum stacks in the United States, with about 27 located in Florida.
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