Apr 5, 2021 - News
Piney Point disaster averted for now, seepage continues
A satellite image of the holding ponds at Piney Point near Palmetto
A satallite image of the holding ponds at Piney Point near Palmetto. Credit: Google Maps satellite image

Emergency management officials working around the clock appear to have once again postponed a catastrophic environmental disaster at the old Piney Point phosphate plant where a huge man-made pond holding contaminated water is threatening to collapse.

Driving the news: Starting last week, a series of leaks developed in the walls of the abandoned phosphate production site’s largest pond, which originally contained about 480 million gallons of both saltwater — from dredging in the bay — and process water, the contaminated water from fertilizer production.

  • On Friday, officials began frantically pumping the water from the pond into Tampa Bay at Port Manatee to try to reduce the pressure on the leaks.
  • They also began adding earthen reinforcement outside the pond to try to slow the seepage.

Why it matters: On Sunday, officials feared a worst-case scenario if a total breach developed: uncontrolled spurts of water could destabilize gypsum stacks containing radioactive material, and send as much as 20 feet of contaminated water flooding from the site.

  • Earlier in the weekend, officials had evacuated the area within about a mile of the site — five miles across Tampa Bay from Ft. DeSoto Park — where more than 300 people live.

The good news: No news. At a Sunday afternoon press conference, Manatee County officials said no uncontrolled leaks had developed.

  • Additional pumps were added to the berm around the pond, and pumping into Tampa Bay has reduced the total amount of contaminated water in the pond to less than 300 million gallons, said acting Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes.
  • The state DEP is monitoring coastal waters to catch any impacts to our environment and to make sure the state holds site owner HRK Holdings responsible for negative impacts, said agency head Noah Valenstein.

What's new: The possibility of collapse is still real. "We’re not out of the critical area yet," Hopes said. "We believe that by Tuesday we’ll be in a much better position and the risk will decrease dramatically."

Of note: "Manatee County utility customers can rest assured that their drinking water is completely safe to drink," said Manatee County commission chair Vanessa Baugh.

Flashback: For decades, environmentalists and regulators have warned that the site was a ticking time bomb.

  • A subsidiary of Borden, the milk company, built the plant in 1966, per the Tampa Bay Times, and soon was caught dumping waste into Bishop Harbor. More dumping occurred in February 1970, creating a series of fish kills that extended through the summer.
  • The plant changed hands at least four times, and through it all toxic leaks sickened workers, killed cattle and drove neighbors from their homes.

This story first appeared in the Axios Tampa Bay newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.

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