PALMETTO, Fla. - Manatee County officials say conditions at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack are "very critical" and have declared a local state of emergency due to the possibility of a breach, which could dump hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater into surrounding neighborhoods and Tampa Bay.
HRK Holdings, the company that manages the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site, which has been inactive since 2001, gave Manatee County commissioners an update Thursday, as they conduct a controlled release of the contaminated water into the bay in an effort to stave off a breach.
HRK Holdings engineer Mike Kelly told commissioners "uncontrolled release is a real possibility at this stage."
After receiving the update, commissioners declared the state of emergency and said they are working around the clock with "interested parties to find an environmentally responsible solution."
However, commissioners noted they have no authority over the site.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has the authority to regulate the site and gave the go-ahead for HRK to conduct a controlled release of water into the bay. Florida Environmental Secretary Noah Valenstein told Rep. Vern Buchanan that 25 million gallons of the wastewater have already been released.
In a statement released on Twitter, Buchanan said they will continue to release "only what is necessary to contain the leak and prevent a full-blown disaster if the holding pond bursts. At the current rate, it would take two weeks to release all 480 million gallons currently in the holding pond."
If there is a catastrophic failure before then, 480 million gallons of wastewater could flood nearby homes and businesses.
The water contains high levels of nitrogen, one of the main factors contributing to algae blooms in the bay, according to Rusty Chinnis with Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper.
"What we’re doing right here is a grass killer," he said. "All the algae competes with the seagrass, it will cover the seagrass, it absorbs the nutrients that the seagrass needs, and also will take light away from the seagrass."
Manatee County Environmental Division Manager Rob Brown explained that the water is not toxic, however, it could cause algae blooms, exacerbate red tide, and result in fish kills.
Chinnis and other environmental groups grow increasingly concerned; a feeling apparently shared by HRK Holdings' engineer, who implied the controlled release could create additional problems.
"Getting the water off the stack is imperative," Kelly told commissioners. "Taking away that pressure, that is driving, possibly destabilizing the back stack and allowing the embankments to collapse, thus releasing water in the south and north with a number of soft sediments as well."
Kelly added, "That uncontrolled release puts a pretty significant danger to environmental and public health."
Meanwhile, Governor Ron DeSantis has said he will spare no cost in efforts to get the situation under control.
Another mining operation, Mosaic, has offered help to remove water from the stack. Crews are said to be preparing to truck water away from the site and dispose of it on Mosaic's property.
Buchanan said Valenstein proposes deep well injection of the contaminated water as a long-term solution to the problem.
Buchanan's tweet says, in part, "Under this process, which could take 3-5 years, contaminated water is injected deep underground into geologic formations that have no potential to threaten people or potential potable water aquifers."
Buchanan says the plan would cost the state $6 million and another $6 million from Manatee County.