Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday after a major leak at a huge drainage pond threatened to flood roads and breach a facility that holds contaminated waters. Officials in Florida ordered the evacuation of over 300 homes and shut down a highway near a big reservoir in the Tampa Bay area north of Bradenton on Saturday.
Residents living by the Pine Point reservoir received text messages warning them to evacuate the area immediately because the collapse was “imminent.” Later that Saturday, officials extended the evacuation zone to cover more houses, but they said they had no plans to open shelters.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a crack was discovered on Friday in one wall of a 77-acre pond that has a depth of 25 feet and contains millions of gallons of water containing nitrogen and phosphorus from an old phosphate mine.
Officials tried to plug the hole late Friday into Saturday, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
At a press conference on Saturday, Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said that the most important problem is that the water might flood the region, which he described as agricultural and low in population density.
“We are talking about the potential of about 600 million gallons within a matter of seconds and minutes, leaving that retention pool and going around the surrounding area,” Hopes said.
Employees at the facility have been pumping out thousands of gallons per minute to minimize the capacity in case the reservoir bursts. It will take 10 to 12 days to pump out the whole reservoir. Others have been trying to map out a strategy for controlling how the water flows from the pond into Tampa Bay.
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The pond is at the former Piney Point phosphate mine, in a stack of radioactive phosphogypsum, a waste product from fertilizer manufacturing. Hopes fears that if the pond bursts, it might destabilize the walls of other parts of the facility.
“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,” he said.
The damaged structure contains 480 million gallons of seawater combined with process water and embankment products from the old fertilizer manufacturing facility, according to the executive order declaring the state of emergency. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried urged the governor in a letter to call an emergency session of the state cabinet to discuss a strategy, mentioning that similar leaks had occurred at this property 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,” Fried said.
In 2016, a large sinkhole opened up in a pond of a phosphogypsum stack, enabling over 200 million gallons of polluted wastewater from another fertilizer plant in central Florida to flow into one of the state’s largest aquifers.
There are at least 70 gypsum stacks in the United States, with approximately 27 in Florida, mainly in the west-central Florida area. The wastewater in the gypsum stacks cannot be seen from the ground, since the piles covering the structure can reach heights of 500 feet.
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