Manatee County officials to receive update Thursday on phosphate plant leak

Wastewater is leaking from an old phosphate plant in Manatee County. 

The company in charge of the property says there is nothing it can do to prevent a catastrophic failure, so Florida environmental officials gave it the green light to release some of the water into Tampa Bay.

Environmental advocates say the approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is a threat to the area.

"[The wastewater] pretty heavy-laden with nitrogen; nitrogen is what fuels all the algae blooms that we have in the bay," explained Rusty Chinnis with Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. "Over the years anyone who could have done something about it just put it off to the next commission or state official."

The wastewater is coming from the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack. Last Thursday a "critical incident" was reported to the DEP. 

The group that manages the site, HRK Holdings says there is a leak that may stem from a torn liner in a 77-acre containment pond.

The DEP issued an emergency order Monday allowing the release of the leaking wastewater into Tampa Bay to prevent an "uncontrolled discharge." 

A spokesperson tells FOX 13 News, in part, "HRK and their third-party engineer have determined their actions are not able to prevent a catastrophic failure without a preventative controlled release."

They said the containment pond holds about 480 million gallons of water. However, DEP says only the amount necessary to stabilize the situation is allowed to be piped out into the bay.

Still, Chinnis and other advocates are concerned about marine life.

"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."

DEP has launched an investigation to confirm the source of the leak, and how it could be stopped.

The Manatee County board of commissioners will get a status report on the situation during a 1:30 p.m. presentation at its land-use meeting Thursday, April 1.