PALMETTO, Fla. - An evacuation order has been issued for a half-mile radius south and a 1-mile radius north of the old Piney Point fertilizer plant wastewater holding reservoir.
An uncontrolled release of water is imminent, officials said.
The evacuation order covers the half-mile south of Buckeye Road, from US 41 to O'Neil Road. Buckeye Road will be closed from 31st Terrace E to O'neil Road.
The order now covers a mile north of Buckeye Road, extending to Airport Manatee, between US 41 and Curiosity Creek.
Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said residents and businesses should make plans to evacuate immediately. Affected individuals may call 311 for more information.
Manatee County emergency officials and DEP held an emergency meeting Friday to discuss a new leak that formed in the east wall of the reservoir. Concerns had been growing over the last few days that the phosphogypsum stack was becoming unstable and may rupture.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the east wall of the containment area began leaking at around 4 p.m. Friday. DEP said the seepage was being contained by an onsite, lined stormwater system.
During a press conference Friday evening, emergency officials said their mitigation efforts seem to be working to stop a full breach, but they said the situation continued to be constantly changing.
If there was to be a breach, emergency personnel said the two main concerns would be Gulf Stream gas company and those living in the 15-20 residences in the evacuation area.
They also noted a FedEx facility in the area, but said they were working with the team there to make sure they could continue to operate, but evacuate quickly if the need arose.
"The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen. It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic," the DEP statement added.
Environmentalists fear that, aside from the obvious flooding damage to nearby homes, such a release could lead to cause algae blooms in the bay, exacerbate red tide, and result in fish kills.
WHAT IS PINEY POINT?
Piney Point is an abandoned phosphate plant located north of Palmetto, in Manatee County, near the coastline of lower Tampa Bay. The plant was built in 1966 and produced fertilizer for decades until it was officially abandoned by Mulberry Corporation in 2001. The plant is located in an environmentally sensitive area, near Bishop Harbor and the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve.
WHAT REMAINS AT THE SITE?
Gypsum stacks and ponds full of wastewater. Both are byproducts of fertilizer production and both are environmental hazards. Phosphogypsum is a slightly radioactive byproduct with no commercial value. It is an industry practice to store it in stacks and there are two stacks at the Piney Point site.
Also on the site are ponds full of water contaminated with nutrients and heavy metals, like cadmium, held back by aging dams. The water, used in the process of producing fertilizer, is corrosive and acidic. The ponds have reached capacity numerous times over the years, requiring emergency releases into Tampa Bay. The water is toxic to the marine environment and has been linked to harmful algae blooms.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
On March 27, crews detected a leak in one of the containment walls holding back 480 million gallons of contaminated water. That wall is now in danger of collapsing. Such a failure would likely flood nearby homes as the toxic water washes toward Tampa Bay. The impacts on marine life would be devastating.
Thursday, commissioners heard a report from the engineer of record from HRK Holdings, the company that manages the wastewater holding stack.
Mike Kelly told commissioners "uncontrolled release is a real possibility at this stage…That uncontrolled release puts a pretty significant danger to environmental and public health."
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SITE?
Mulberry Corporation filed for bankruptcy and officially abandoned the plant in 2001. The Department of Environmental Protection took responsibility for the plant until 2006 when HRK Holdings acquired the property and became responsible for managing operations at the site. HRK had intended to turn the property into a shipping terminal.
In 2001, heavy rains from Tropical Storm Gabrielle threatened to overflow the ponds and cause a catastrophic release of wastewater. DEP, which was responsible for maintaining water levels at the time, released 10 million gallons of lime-treated water into Bishop Harbor, a marine estuary leading into Tampa Bay.
In 2003, DEP received permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to dump partially treated wastewater 100 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, after a storm dumped 16.5 inches of rain on Piney Point, once again threatening to overflow the ponds.
In 2011, a liner on one of the gypsum stacks was punctured, causing water to leak through the stack, picking up pollutants along the way. The DEP ordered the pond to be drained and the liner repaired. 170 million gallons of contaminated water were dumped into Bishop Harbor and lower Tower Bay.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.