MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — A leak discovered late last month at the Piney Point wastewater pond in Manatee County, Florida forced emergency environmental response and evacuations and now action from Governor Ron DeSantis.
“We want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story so today I’m directing the Department of Environmental Protection to create a plan to close Piney Point,” said DeSantis.
Piney Point, a phosphate plant, opened in 1966 for the manufacture of fertilizer.
“The phosphate industry kind of operates in three different steps. You have the mining at the beginning, you have the fertilizer production, and then you have to get rid of the waste that is leftover, which is phosphogypsum,” said environmental protection group ManaSota-88 Director Glenn Compton.
He’s seen the cleanup of Piney Point firsthand.
“The idea is to get the water down as far as they can, so they can repair the leak the tear in the liner that’s occurring. So they have these pumps running 24 hours,” stated Compton.
According to Compton, this was predictable and devastating.
“There is no such thing as a best-case scenario. It’s trying to avoid the worst-case from happening. And so far, we’ve avoided the worst, but we didn’t dodge any bullets,” stated Compton.
That’s because millions of gallons of this wastewater were pumped into the Port of Manatee, affecting Tampa Bay to the north and Sarasota Bay to the south. Bodies of water that are already trying to overcome recent toxic red tide issues.
“This release of about 215 million gallons of wastewater with very, very high levels of nutrients 10 times that which is found in sewage is like a punch in the gut for those efforts, it sets us back years,” said Suncoast Waterkeeper Founder Jason Bloom.
The fears over Piney Point are about life on the water as much as life in the water.
“There’s a delicate balance the chemistry of this beautiful waterway behind us it’s it’s delicate,” stated Bloom.
“That’s exactly when you’re explaining it to people. Part of my whole livelihood. You think about it is based on everything that just happened,” described Charter fishing captain Scott Moore.
Moore has fished these waters for over 40 years from his base on Anna Maria island off the coast of Bradenton, Florida. He says it’s all about the nitrogen.
“Number one thing is letting people know that this nitrogen it creates a a growth that sticks to the sea grasses. Okay. And that growth kills the sea grasses,” said Moore.
Moore, a catch and release fisherman in the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame, says that these grass kills take away food for the fish on which he makes a living.
“When it comes to fish, if there’s no groceries, they ain’t gonna be here. They don’t just swim in the water. It’s all about groceries for them,” explained Moore.
Off the water, attention has turned to an LLC called HRK, the now bankrupt owners of Piney Point.
“Now we’re finding a hard lesson that limited liability corporation cannot manage a phosphogypsum stack, they don’t make the investments that are necessary to clean up the water,” stated Compton.
These waters are precious to a state that makes more money from tourists than fertilizer.
“Everything starts here. All the grouper all the snappers start here. That’s part of the whole golf system,” said Moore.
Optimism, though, in the wake of decades of assaults on the water like Piney Point is tough to find.
“There’s a saying in Manatee county that if you go to a county commission meeting, 50 years from now, there’s two things on the agenda, sewage spills and Piney Point. So we’re going to be dealing with this for quite some time,” said Compton.