ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — Crews are working around the clock to prevent the collapse of a wastewater reservoir outside Tampa Bay as officials say reports of a second breach were “unsubstantiated” Monday.
A worsening leak at the Piney Point wastewater reservoir prompted Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency on Saturday over concerns that stacks of phosphogypsum waste, primarily from fertilizer manufacturing, could collapse at the plant and cause dangerous flooding.
Officials said a full breach of the reservoir, which holds 480 million gallons, could have flooded the surrounding area with a 20-foot wall of water. More than 300 homes were evacuated, portions of a major highway remain closed and several hundred jail inmates were moved nearby to a second floor of the facility.
The situation was improving on Monday as the coordinating agencies had managed to ramp up a pumping system that was draining polluted water from the property to Port Manatee, acting Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes said.
“By the end of the day today when the additional pumps come online, we will more than double the volume of water that we’re pulling out of that retention pool,” Hopes said, adding that there were still just under 300 million gallons of water in the reservoir. “We should be looking at anywhere from 75 to 100 million gallons a day.”
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, water that is seeping out from the reservoir’s east wall “remains contained onsite in the site’s lined stormwater management.”
Officials initially expected draining to take 10-12 days, but Hopes said the new pumping system and pipes could avert the crisis as soon as early this week.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the water in the pond is primarily saltwater mixed with wastewater and stormwater. It has elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and is acidic, but not expected to be toxic, the agency says.
The ponds sit in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct from manufacturing fertilizer. State authorities say the water in the breached pond is not radioactive.