Possible second breach detected as Piney Point gyp stacks still in danger of catastrophic collapse

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Screengrab from live Manatee County video shows the breach at the Piney Point facility on Monday, April 5, 2021.

Officials in Manatee County said a drone discovered a possible second breach at the Piney Point gyp stacks Monday. A full collapse is still possible, even as crews double efforts to drain contaminated water into Tampa Bay.

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Manatee County Public Safety Director Jake Saur said the second breach was found early Monday.

“At approximately 2 a.m., an infrared drone identified a signature that could indicate a second breach,” he said.

Annihilation

Officials didn’t have more information on the possible second breach, but it’s more bad news on top of an increasingly dire situation. About 300 million gallons of contaminated wastewater sitting on top of phosphogypsum stacks is in danger of washing across a portion of Manatee County in the form of a 20-foot wave. That’s just one pond. Two other stacks, with much higher concentrations of pollutants, could also come down.

“The two stacks that are currently not leaking have very toxic water,” Glen Compton of ManaSota-88, a non-profit that has been urging the County to do something about the gyp stacks for almost 20 years, said. “It would annihilate – and that’s really not too strong a term. It would annihilate plant and animal life in its way if they were to collapse.”

The problem threatening Manatee County and the waters of Tampa Bay is an environmental disaster playing out in seemingly slow motion.

Commissioners and other stakeholders have been told for years that Piney Point was in danger of failure. Piney Point was shut down in 2001, but the waste from more than three decades of phosphate mining sits in massive piles at the site. On top of it sits the pools of wastewater threatening the Bay.

The (kind of) good news

The good news is, of the three waste water ponds, the one leaking is the least contaminated. The bad news is, the current best-case scenario is releasing all of the estimated 480 million gallons of water into Port Manatee and Tampa Bay.

Congressman Vern Buchannan, whose District includes Piney Point helped get some federal aid to the site.

“I want to be hopeful, optimistic,” he said. “But just the fact that we’re running water into the Tampa Bay is not a great thing and not a great place to be at. But the reality of it is it seems like the right thing to do right now.”

The water being released isn’t radioactive, but it can still contain toxins like radium, heavy metals, ammonia, phosphorus and nitrogen. And it could pick up even more as it passes through the phosphogypsum.

A lot of consequences

As of Monday, the water level in the breached pond had gone from 480 million gallons to about 300 million. Crews are working to empty the pond at a rate of around 35 million gallons a day to avoid total collapse of the site. The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to help double that effort.

That might avoid a complete site failure, but Ashley Smyth, a soil and water sciences professor with the University of Florida said even the release of water has untold consequences.

“There’s a lot of nitrogen and a lot of phosphorous that is being put into Tampa Bay,” Smyth said. “What is in that water has a lot of consequences. I don’t know exactly what will be in that water by the time it enters Tampa Bay.”

In the least, the contaminated water is pumping nitrogen into the Bay at levels far beyond what would normally be acceptable. That increase can fuel harmful algae blooms like Red Tide and cause massive fish kills.

“I am concerned about the threats to public safety, homes, as well as businesses. And then, of course, marine life. I’m very concerned about the impacts of that,” Buchannan said. “We know what that does to our communities. So when I see water flowing into Tampa Bay, frankly it makes me sick about it.”

Manatee County still has an evacuation order for the area surrounding Piney Point. Commissioners in Manatee expect to be briefed by the Department of Environmental Protection during a Tuesday commission meeting. Officials have said that there is no current threat to potable water supplies.

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