SARASOTA, Florida – As the leaking sewage containment pond wall at the site of the former Piney Point fertilizer plant continues to be critical, the Department of Environmental Protection from Florida said Monday night that concerns about a possible second breach in the wall have turned out to be unfounded.
Earlier, Manatee County officials said a drone fitted with thermal imaging equipment identified a possible second breach in the wall as of 2 a.m. on Monday. An investigation later determined that the identified area was not another failure of the wall, according to the ministry.
“Our technical team and engineers came in and assessed and determined that there was no second breach,” said department spokeswoman Shannon Herbon.
A team including representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessed the structural integrity of the phosphogypsum stack containment pond wall on Monday, Manatee officials said. As of Monday evening, the worst-case scenario – a total collapse of the earthen berm that would cause flood water to flood onto neighboring properties – had been avoided.
Hundreds of people were ordered to evacuate as workers pumped millions of gallons of sewage from the Piney Point Reservoir into the Tampa Bay ecosystem, a move that could avert a disaster at the reservoir but could have adverse effects like the red tide and the death of fish in Tampa Bay. waters.
What we know:Florida crews pump sewage into Tampa Bay to prevent full breach in reservoir
Officials are in a race against time to pump enough toxic water out of the pond to relieve pressure on the breaches in the wall and prevent it from collapsing.
Manatee County Acting Administrator Scott Hopes said about 35 million gallons are pumped out of the pond daily, but when more pumps are in operation later Monday that will increase to between 75 million and 100 million gallons per day.
“A containment wall leak continues at the Piney Point facility. … Infiltration rates remained stable overnight,” County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur said during ‘a press conference on Monday. “At around 2 a.m., an infrared drone identified a signature that could indicate a second breach.”
Herbon said concerns about the second violation were based on “conflicting engineering reports.”
“Our technical group went there and checked that there was only one breach,” Herbon said.
Saur said in a follow-up interview that officials cannot say for sure whether the structural integrity of the wall has deteriorated further.
“Engineers are not sure if they were already aware of this second breach or not,” Saur said, adding, “It may be nothing.”
Local coverage of the USA TODAY network:Residents near Piney Point disposal area watch for phosphate sewage leaks
‘We are in a critical phase’
The containment pond contained less than 300 million gallons as of early Monday afternoon. Hopes said that within 48 hours “we will be in a situation where we will no longer have this risk of total disruption”. About 150 to 200 million gallons must be pumped to reach this point, Saur said.
But for now, county officials are urging residents of the flood-prone area if the containment wall collapses to take the evacuation notice seriously.
“You have to heed this evacuation message,” Saur said. “We are not out of the woods yet. We are in a critical phase.”
More than 300 homes and several businesses in the area around Piney Point have been evacuated. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office said 345 low-risk inmates had been moved to an undisclosed location due to concerns about floodwater reaching the jail.
The Corps’ examination of the site on Monday marks the first time that an engineering team independent of owner HRK Holdings has analyzed the situation. Officials had hired a third-party engineering contractor hired by HRK.
“We have a whole new team doing an independent assessment,” Hopes said.
U.S. Representative Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., Who visited the site by helicopter on Monday, urged the corps and the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection to get involved.
“I want the best and the brightest on the pitch,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan said the issues at Piney Point go back years and likely should have been addressed sooner.
“It’s something that unfortunately could have been dealt with probably over the years, but I’m not looking to assess blame or anything,” Buchanan said. “I’m here to do whatever I can to help the county and I don’t think it’s just Manatee County, it’s having an impact on the region.”
About 480 million gallons were held in the containment pond before the leak began and authorities began pumping water on March 30. There are also two additional ponds on the property.
Discarded water contains high levels of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and conservationists fear this is fueling algal blooms that cause fish death and other environmental damage.
The situation is already an environmental disaster, but it could get even worse if the containment wall collapses.
“I want to be hopeful, optimistic,” Buchanan said. “But just the fact that we were running water in Tampa Bay is not a good thing, it is not a great place.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis conducted an aerial tour of the Piney Point site on Sunday. The governor previously declared a state of emergency for Manatee County to help direct state resources to the Piney Point effort.
The governor told a press conference that emergency managers had deployed about 20 additional pumps to the site in an attempt to double the flow of water out of the pond.
“We hope we can just continue to drain water efficiently and avoid a catastrophic event, but we need to be prepared that this can lead to further degradation,” DeSantis said.
Contributor: Jay Cannon, USA TODAY
Follow Zac Anderson of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Twitter: @zacjanderson
More information on the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:Have questions about the Piney Point wastewater discharge? We have answers