Florida officials lift evacuation order after wastewater reservoir leak flood fears ease

Florida wastewater pond in danger of collapsing

Over 300 homes under mandatory evacuation. Jonathan Serrie reports from Manatee County, Florida.

Florida authorities have lifted an evacuation order for more than 300 homes and businesses that were forced out over the weekend after an uncontrolled release of wastewater from Manatee County’s Piney Point reservoir.

Officials said the reservoir continues to leak but the water escaping is being offset by a pumping effort.

This aerial photo taken from an airplane shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine, Saturday, April 3, 2021 in Bradenton, Fla. 
(The Bradenton Herald via AP)

More than 300 homes were evacuated as well as local businesses when the reservoir holding tens of millions of gallons of water appeared poised to burst open, potentially causing widespread flooding.

Manatee County authorities on Tuesday said a major highway near the site, U.S. 41, has been reopened.

Nikki Fried, the state commissioner of the Agriculture and Consumer Services Department, toured the site Tuesday and told reporters the situation appears to have stabilized.

“It seems like this is under control, as much as something like this could be under control,” said Fried, a Democrat. “We need to take immediate action to fix this.”

The Piney Point reservoir, as well as two others nearby, sit in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct from manufacturing fertilizer from an old phosphate plant that is no longer in operation.

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 does not appear to be toxic or radioactive.

The agency said dozens of pumps and 10 vacuum trucks have been deployed to remove more than 35 million gallons of wastewater per day into the Tampa Bay estuary, where 11 different sampling operations. Those activities are monitoring water quality and considering ways of minimizing algae blooms that kill marine life and make beachgoing hazardous to humans in the tourism-dependent state.

This Monday, April 5, 2021, image provided by Maxar Technologies shows a view of a breach in a retaining pond at the 77-acre Piney Point reservoir in Manatee County, just south of the Tampa Bay area, in Florida. 
(Maxar Technologies via AP)

There are about two dozen other sites in Florida containing about 1 billion tons of this phosphate production byproduct, officials have said.

Florida lawmakers have proposed spending $200 million to clean up and close the wastewater reservoir, but it was not immediately clear how officials plan to tackle the huge engineering challenge.

State Sen. Wilton Simpson, the chamber’s president and a Republican who represents Citrus, Hernando counties and part of Pasco county, said a legislative committee on Wednesday will take up an amendment to use federal money for the project. Its sponsor is Sen. Jim Boyd, a Republican from Bradenton where the Piney Point reservoir is located.

“This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen for too long,” Simpson said in a statement. “We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in five, 10 or 20 years.”

A committee in Florida’s House of Representatives is also expected to consider a similar bill Wednesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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