The waters at risk of flooding from Piney Point are not radioactive, but contain heavy levels of nutrients. That brings with it a significant risk of algae blooms in and around Tampa Bay.
But in a call to lawmakers in the region, Department of Environmental Protection officials stressed the pollution in the water isn’t as immediately dangerous to humans as the sheer amount.
“It’s not that if the water touches you, you will be burned,” said John Truitt, Deputy Director for the DEP. “It’s not the water itself. It’s a flooding issue.”
A state of emergency remains in effect at the Piney Point industrial site in Manatee County, prompting the briefing with the Bay Area Legislative Delegation. On a call with officials in the region in and around the site, environmental officials explained that a liner break below the water line has forced the state to find ways to discharge water in one of the ponds onsite into Port Manatee.
Truitt stressed that much of the water in the reservoir now in fact originated in that port. It dates to a dredging project for one of the berths deepened around 2011.
Objecting to media reports to the contrary, Truitt said the water does not exceed radiation levels already present in the marine water in Tampa Bay.
Truitt aid he’s not trying to sugarcoat the situation. The hundreds of millions of gallons at the Piney Point site do have high levels of phosphorous, nitrogen and Ph levels, which could impact the ecology. The Gulf Coast knows well the potential impacts of red tide blooms, which in 2018 threatened the health and hospitality economy up and down Florida’s west coast.
Scientists will closely monitor whether the introduction of nutrients and risk of blooms as situations unfold.
To mitigate the risk of any flooding, Truitt said an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis allows the shift of that water. But he stressed that the plan is not to move 480 million gallons out of the ponds and into the site. Rather, the state needs to move enough water to relieve pressure so that the the liner can be repaired without causing a full collapse.
How much is that? Ruitt said that remains unknown, but when a similar event happened in 2011 when there was about 310 million gallons of water at risk, the level was brough down to 169 million before engineers could stop the water flow and repair it.
Several lawmakers in the briefing expressed concern how this disaster could have an impact on the Bay.
Rep. Susan Valdés, a Hillsborough Democrat, asked Truitt what was being done to protect the beaches in the region from the excess water being pumped in.
The state is working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and monitoring whether broader protections need to be dispatched through the region, Truitt said, though the focus right now remains on the immediate area around Piney Point.
Local governments have evacuated more than 300 homes in the immediate area, and in the event of a major collapse at the site, there could be flash floods with water walls as high as 40 feet, though Truitt said most modeling shows risk of flooding of a couple feet. That’s still significant and would make rescue of individuals difficult, he said, likely driving the local decision-making.
Rep. Andrew Learned, a Hillsborough Democrat, asked specifically about a jail within the evacuation radius.
Rep. Will Robinson, a Manatee Republican who represents the district where the disaster is unfolding, said he has spoken directly with Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells about that site. The jail is on the opposite side of the pond than the breach, so the possibility of a high water level flood is low. In the event of any expected flooding, there are plans in place to move all inmates into the upper stories of the jail. But should risk level change, the department will determine if evacuation of the jail should take place.
The call with lawmakers drew some complaint about short notice. Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a Pinellas Democrat, tweeted that concern.
“Piney Point is impacting part of my district in Manatee and I’ve been working with local leadership and leg. delegation to ensure this situation is contained to not contaminate the entire water source of Tampa Bay,” she said. “Yet, when state leadership steps in, we are contacted only minutes before to advise of a briefing. This type of leadership isn’t collaborative, and the only way we get real solutions for the people of Florida is by working together & putting partisanship aside. I remain committed working with stakeholders and leaders to solve this issue.”
Truitt said that lawmakers will now have a standing daily phone call where they will be updated on developments at the site.