The Crisis at a Florida Wastewater Reservoir Show the Risks of Our Weak Infrastructure

A drone view of Piney Point reservoir.
Gif: Manatee County Government

On Saturday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency over fears that a leaking wastewater pond in Manatee County could collapse imminently, triggering a “real catastrophic flood situation.” Officials have ordered more than 300 households to evacuate the area, warning that the looming disaster could unleash a 20-foot (6.1-meter) wall of water into the nearby area.

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The water is full of pollutants like phosphorus and nitrogen that could wreak havoc on Tampa Bay and the area. The emergency at Piney Point is indicative of the risks at other industrial reservoirs across the country. That’s particularly true as the climate crisis creates conditions that could lead to breaches and overflows.

Problems began on March 25 at Piney Point, when the facility’s owners, HRK Holdings, first noticed a leak in the reservoir, according to documents reviewed by the Sarasota Tribune. By April 2, an evacuation order was expanded to all who live within 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of the facility, which holds 306 million gallons of waste. That evening, emergency crews attempted to stop up the breach with rocks and other materials, but were unsuccessful. At a Sunday press conference, Gov. DeSantis said the crews, aided by the the Florida National Guard, are pumping water out of the pond at a rate of 33 million gallons a day.

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At the rate workers are pumping the reservoir, it will take 10 to 12 days to empty it out. But as they work, they could be contributing to another environmental disaster. The wastewater is currently being ejected into the Tampa Bay, an ecosystem home to a variety of wildlife, including 200 species of fish and rich waterbird nesting populations. The pollution is threatening to create dangerous algae blooms which could put these ecosystems at risk.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Noah Valenstein told local reporters that environmental regulators will monitor water the bay’s quality over time, but right now, protecting these ecosystems isn’t the top priority.

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“The imminent threat is public health,” he said. ““We can take care of nutrients in the environment... The bay is resilient.”

The facility has a long history of environmental issues starting when it was created in 1966 and continuing through the present. According to the Tampa Bay Times, state environmental records show that over the past year, HRK Holdings staff have observed numerous cracks that could trigger a large leak in the wastewater reservoir’s plastic liner, including last July, October, and December.

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HRK Holdings did not respond to Earther’s request for comment. One of the two phone numbers on their website is out of service; the other’s voicemail box is full.

“The Piney Point fiasco was completely avoidable,” Glenn Compton, chairman of the Manatee County environmental advocacy organization ManaSota-88, wrote in an email.

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In 2006, HRK Holdings acquired the facility. The Department of Environmental Protection had just finished installing the facility’s plastic lining and removing hundreds of millions of wastewater, but HRK, with permission from state environmental authorities, agreed to accept additional wastewater from a nearby dredging project and store it in the wastewater pond. In 2011, the same reservoir that’s currently leaking sprung a breach due to increased pressure from a heavy downpour of rain, spilling millions of gallons of contaminated water.

The phosphate industry’s damage goes well beyond Piney Point, though. In 2004, a facility at Riverview, Florida leaked and spilled millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Tampa Bay. In 2016, a sinkhole opened up at another phosphate waste facility, sending 215 million gallons of wastewater into waterways. In 2019, a phosphogypsum stack (basically a huge pile of the stuff) in St. James Parish, Louisiana threatened to crack open, prompting an evacuation. In 2004 a gyp stack at Riverview, Florida breached, spilling millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay.

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The latter happened during Hurricane Frances, when waves generated by the storm punctured the dike protecting the reservoir. The climate crisis is contributing to stronger storms as well as sea level rise that could affect retaining walls near the sea. In addition, heavy rains could further undermine key infrastructure. We’ve seen that play out in recent years from Michigan’s dam collapse last year to the risks Hurricane Florence’s heavy rains posed to feedlots and coal ash ponds in the Carolinas in 2018.

Without urgent action to deal with toxic wastewater, other sites containing phosphogypsum could leak in the future. The most persistent solution being considered by Manatee County commissioners, though, is constructing a deep-water well onsite to inject the contaminated water into. But Compton and other environmentalists oppose this since studies show it could be dangerous. Local scholars and officials are also researching ways to neutralize the wastewater and calling for more state funding to do so.

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In February, dozens of conservation, environmental, and public health advocacy groups petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency to improve federal oversight of this radioactive waste and safely contain, treat, and dispose of it. Meanwhile, communities in Florida are bracing for the worst.

“It looks like this is turning out to be the ‘horror’ chapter of a long, terrible story of phosphate mining in Florida and beyond,” Justin Bloom, founder and board member of local environmental organization Suncoast Waterkeeper, said in a statement. “We hope the contamination is not as bad as we fear, but are preparing for significant damage to Tampa Bay and the communities that rely on this precious resource.”

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Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.

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