Collapse ‘imminent’ at Florida phosphate mine leaking millions of gallons of contaminated water

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — A cracked reservoir at a former Florida phosphate mine is leaking millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Update 1:13 p.m. EDT April 4: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took an aerial tour of the former phosphate mine that is leaking millions of gallons of contaminated water into Port Manatee on Sunday.

A worst-case scenario could see a 20-foot wall of polluted water emerge from the leaking site, the Bradenton Herald reported. Although other models show one to five feet of flooding is more likely.

“The models for less than an hour could be a 20-foot wall of water,” Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said. “If you’re in an evacuation area and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice.”

The evacuation zone includes more than 300 homes. The Manatee County jail has moved inmates to the second floor and placed sandbags around the building, the Herald reported.

“Public health and safety is the top priority,” DeSantis said. “The goal is to ensure the integrity of the stack system as quickly as possible.”

Safety as well as environmental concerns loom as the nutrient-rich water is released. Officials are pumping 33 million gallons of water out of the pond daily to reduce pressure on the breach. There were about 340 million gallons remaining. The pond originally held 480 million gallons when the leak was discovered.

“It is primarily salt water from the Port Manatee dredge project mixed with legacy process water and storm water runoff. The water was tested prior to discharge,” DeSantis said. “The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with exception primarily of the phosphorous and the nitrogen.”

Update 10:13 p.m. EDT April 3: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted Saturday night that he would be traveling to Manatee County, the area impacted by the spill at the Piney Point plant.

“All residents impacted should heed local evacuation routes,” the governor tweeted.

Original report: Officials said a collapse of a nearby gypsum stack at the Piney Point plant is “imminent” which could cause the leaky pond, which has already discharged more than 25 million gallons of sewage into Port Manatee, to spew even more acidic water, flooding nearby areas and spilling into the bay, the Bradenton Herald reported.

“There has been further motion with the wall,” Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur told the Herald. “We’ve ordered further evacuations and closed U.S. 41. That’s all I know right now.”

At least 20 homes were evacuated and roads near the plant were closed Saturday.

“This occurred despite overnight efforts from state and local crews to reinforce the breached areas. Our first concern is to protect the people who live and do business in the area,” said Manatee County Board of Commissioners Chair Vanessa Baugh. “People within a half-mile radius received an emergency notification to evacuate at 11:01 a.m. The public must heed that notice to avoid harm.”

The Manatee County jail is within the evacuation zone but officials are not planning to move inmates to another location, the sheriff’s office told the Herald.

A fissure was discovered last week in the wall of the leaking pond which holds 800 million gallons of polluted water. The water contains high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen. Environmentalists fear the nutrient-rich water could cause the formation of algae blooms that lead to red tide.

The Department of Environmental Protection said that HRK Holdings, the company that owns the site, was working to block the leak, but those efforts did not appear to be helping. An emergency order by the environmental agency allowed the release of 22,000 gallons of the contaminated water to ease pressure, WWSB reported.

While inspecting the site Saturday, officials said the gypsum stacks near the pond were unstable and collapse was “imminent.”

“I was actually out on the stack and that’s when we determined that it was no longer safe to be anywhere near Piney Point, so we all kind of raced off the stacks as fast as we could,” Manatee County Commissioner George Kruse said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the county Saturday afternoon to help with response and recovery.