Officials shut down possibility of 2nd leak in the toxic Piney Point reservoir in Florida

Piney Point reservoir leak
A reservoir of a defunct phosphate plant south of Tampa, Florida, where a leak at a wastewater reservoir forced the evacuation of hundreds of people and threatened to flood the area and Tampa Bay with polluted water over the weekend. Drone Base/Reuters
  • A leak in a contaminated reservoir has caused evacuations in Manatee County, Florida.
  • A second possible leak was spotted in the reservoir on Monday morning, but officials later said it was not a leak.
  • Officials said engineers were installing 20 emergency pumps to mitigate the danger.
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Engineers determined that an anomaly spotted by an infrared drone in a contaminated Florida reservoir was not a possible second leak, state officials announced Monday.

“There have been news reports of a second area of seepage from the east wall of the NGS-South compartment at Piney Point,” according to the announcement from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “These reports are unsubstantiated.”

Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur said earlier Monday that infrared drones had discovered a second possible leak in the Piney Point reservoir that’s filled with contaminated water at 2 a.m. Monday.

Flooding from the resevoir is still possible, but the FLDEP also announced that an “uncontrolled” leak that had been seeping tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated water into Piney Point Creek has also ceased.

Florida is under a state of emergency after officials warned over the weekend that the Tampa Bay-area pond could flood the surrounding homes with toxic wastewater.

Residents living close to the old Piney Point phosphate plant, north of Bradenton, near Tampa, have been asked to evacuate. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sunday said that 316 homes had been evacuated and that safety notices had gone out to businesses.

State officials said they first discovered the leak on Friday in one wall of the 77-acre pond. It held about 480 million gallons of water containing phosphorus, nitrogen, and small amounts of radium and uranium.

The results of water quality samples taken from the resevoir still have yet to be publicly shared, but the FLDEP said “all water quality information concludes that this water is NOT radioactive.”

Saur said on Monday that the Florida Division of Emergency Management had delivered 20 emergency pumps to the reservoir that should be functional by the end of the day.

Once those pumps are operational, officials will be able to more than double the pumping ability, to up to 100 million gallons per day, acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said.

The risk of a full breach in the reservoir would likely be eliminated after 48 hours with that pumping capacity, Hopes added.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, who represents Sarasota and the Manatee County area, said the water he saw while visiting the reservoir appeared contaminated. He said that he feared an increased risk of algae blooms in Florida’s waterways from the reservoir leak but that he thought engineers were making progress.

“The fact that we’re running water into the Tampa Bay is not a great thing and not a great place to be at, but the reality of it is it seems like it’s the right thing to do right now,” Buchanan said.

Authorities have worked to pump out as much water as possible to minimize the risk of a flood. But this is time-consuming.

Buchanan railed against the company that owns the reservoir, HRK Holdings, saying it needed to be held accountable for the damage. He said several times that the problems should have been dealt with years ago.

“I think that the company HRK needs to be held completely responsible,” Buchanan said, adding that he was sure Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection “and others will make sure that they do whatever they have to do to make it right.”

DeSantis had echoed Buchanan’s sentiment during a press conference on Sunday.

“This is not acceptable. This is not something we will allow to persist,” DeSantis said.

One hydrogeologist told Insider he agreed that officials were taking the best steps to mitigate the damage so far.

“I think everybody involved is under a tremendous amount of stress because of the risk to the communities around them,” said Dale Rucker, the chief technical officer at Hydrogeophysics. “From my point of view, I don’t think they had much of a choice than to drop the levels of the pond in order to prevent a larger breach.”

Florida officials said they are planning for the worst-case scenario

Hopes told reporters on Monday that all the models for evacuations assumed a full breach of the pond.

Officials said they moved 345 people in the Manatee County Jail to an undisclosed facility on Sunday evening, but more than 700 people were still being held on the second floor of the jail.

Evacuation orders are still in place in Manatee County. Saur said that at least 30 people and their pets were staying in shelters and hotels and that 100,000 bottles of water had been delivered to the county.

These types of potential disasters are partially brought on by climate change, Rucker said. The pond seems to have been designed to hold less rainwater than the amount that comes out today, he said.

The solution, Rucker said, might be to revisit these designs, particularly when it comes to aging infrastructure: Officials should identify “where they are inadequate and start thinking about how do we shore them up to minimize risks to the downgradient communities?”

Shoring up ponds and reservoirs would not be too difficult, Rucker said.

“You can add dirt and rock around it, build up the width and the height of the earth and dam,” he said. “These are all just earth and dams that were built up to hold the water. You can always add more rock to increase the strength.”

Commercial traffic has been unaffected by the leak, and port operations remain unchanged, Manatee County Port Authority Chair Reggie Bellamy said.