Hundreds of residents in Manatee County, Florida, were ordered to evacuate their homes over Easter weekend as officials feared that a wastewater pond could collapse “at any time.” On Saturday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the area.
County officials said the pond, located at the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant, had a “significant leak,” according to CBS affiliate WTSP-TV. The Manatee County Public Safety Department told people near the plant to evacuate due to an “imminent uncontrolled release of wastewater.”
“A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally,” said Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur, “signifying that structural collapse could occur at any time.”
How to watch an update on the wastewater pond
What: Manatee County officials offer a briefing on the Piney Point processing plant
Date: April 5, 2021
Time: 12:30 p.m. ET
Location: Manatee County Public Safety Center, Bradenton, Florida
Online stream: Live on CBSN in the player above and on your mobile or streaming device
Follow: Live updates on CBSNews.com
Manatee County has published an ongoing live stream of footage from a drone that is monitoring the area.
Manatee County Public Safety Department initially sent out emergency evacuation notices on Friday for those who were within half a mile of Piney Point, and by 11 a.m. Saturday, evacuation orders were extended to people within one mile north of the reservoir’s stacks of phosphogypsum — a fertilizer waste product — and those within half a mile to the south of the site. Surrounding stretches of highway were also closed to traffic.
Mandatory evacuations were extended an additional half mile west and one mile southwest of the site on Saturday evening. Manatee County Public Safety Department said that 316 households are within the full evacuation area.
Despite the mandatory evacuations for local residents, officials have not fully evacuated Manatee County Jail, which lies within the evacuation zone. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to CBS News on Sunday that out of more than 1,000 inmates, they will be moving 345 “to an undisclosed secure location.”
The move, the office said, is to “free up bed space” for the remaining 721 inmates on the upper level of the jail.
“For security purposes, we are not providing details right now about the transfer of inmates,” the office said. “Sheriff Rick Wells and staff are still in constant communication with officials on the situation, and are feeling better with the progress to drain the stack. In the event of a collapse we expect only about a foot of water making it onto jail property.”
State Representative Michele Rayner-Goolsby tweeted that she has spoken to the sheriff and said he has “assured” her that “there is a plan in place to make sure inmates at the jail are protected and evacuated safely.”
“I am good with the plan,” she added.
Also Sunday night, the Federal Aviation Administration issued temporary flight restrictions over the reservoir for Monday.
On Monday morning, Manatee County schools announced that school bus transportation within the evacuation zone has been suspended. Students from six schools are impacted by the situation, according to the list of impacted buses.
At a press conference Sunday morning, DeSantis said officials are pumping out 33 million gallons of water a day from the pond, and that the water “is not radioactive,” although another official added that the water is “not water we want to see leaving the site.” The primary concern, DeSantis said, is the nutrient makeup of the water, which contains metals. Reports on water samples should be available in the coming days.
“We’re hoping that we can just continue to get the water out in an efficient way to prevent a catastrophic event,” DeSantis said.
Officials said at the meeting that the greatest threat for the time being is flooding. Even after days of pumping water out of reservoir, there are still roughly 3,450 million gallons of wastewater that could suddenly be unleashed.
If the reservoir were to fully collapse, one model shows that the area could see a “20-foot wall of water” within minutes, acting Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes said.
Phosphogypsum is the “radioactive waste” left over from processing phosphate ore into a state that can be used for fertilizer, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals,” the center said in a statement on Saturday. “For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates 5 tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous stacks hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall.”
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said in a statement Saturday that the “public must heed that notice to avoid harm.”
The water that is currently being pumped out by officials to avoid a full collapse is a mix of sea water from a local dredge project, storm water and rain runoff. The water has not been treated.
“The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen,” the state said in a statement. “It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic.”
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried wrote a letter to DeSantis on Saturday urging an emergency session of the Florida Cabinet to discuss the situation. She wrote that the leaking water is “contaminated, radioactive wastewater,” and noted that this leak is not the property’s first.
“For more than 50 years, this Central Florida mining operation has caused numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents,” Fried wrote. “There have been numerous, well-documented failures — which continue today — of the property’s reservoir liner, including leaks, poor welds, holes, cracks and weaknesses that existed prior to purchase by the current owner, HRK Holdings, and exacerbated since.”
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