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Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in three counties

By Rachel DeSantis
April 05, 2021 12:17 PM
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Piney Point reservoir
Piney Point reservoir
| Credit: MANATEE COUNTY PUBLIC SAFETY DEPARTMENT HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A large wastewater pond near Tampa is on the brink of collapse, prompting a local state of emergency and hundreds of evacuations as experts warn of the potential of a 20-foot-high wall of water.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties due to "potential of a breach of the south reservoir at Piney Point facility," he said at a press conference on Sunday.

A breakout of seepage in the east wall of the reservoir's containment area was observed on Friday afternoon, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said.

The 77-acre pond holds millions of gallons of water that contains phosphorus and nitrogen from an old phosphate plant, and officials made attempts to plug the hole using rocks and other materials, USA Today reported.

A Saturday morning examination from engineers, however, found that Piney Point's containment walls were reportedly in imminent danger of collapsing.

Should they collapse, 340 millions of gallons of water could come spewing out in just minutes, risking a 20-foot-high wall of water and covering the area in 1 to 5 feet of water, Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Piney Point reservoir
Piney Point reservoir
| Credit: MANATEE COUNTY PUBLIC SAFETY DEPARTMENT HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

DeSantis said Sunday that on-site engineers ordered a controlled release so as to "prevent a catastrophic failure," and that controlled discharges of water began on March 30 with an average of about 35 million gallons per day.

Manatee County safety officials evacuated 316 people from their homes, and the Red Cross has helped in putting families up in hotels, he said. He added that the water is not radioactive, and does meet water quality standards for marine waters, "with the exception primarily of the phosphorus and the nitrogen." It is primarily salt water from the Port Manatee dredge project mixed with Legacy process water and storm water runoff.

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Though the water is only as acidic as a cup of black coffee, officials have expressed concerns over whether the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus could feed red tide and cause other environmental impacts on Tampa Bay, USA Today reported.

"At the division, we are sending every resource at our disposal to the site by truck, crane and helicopter," FDEM Director Jared Moskowitz said in a statement. "We have already deployed 20 pumps, 10 vacuum trucks and more than 100,000 bottles of water, with more on the way. I urge residents in the area to follow all warnings and evacuation orders from local officials as we do everything we can to keep you safe."