“A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally,” said Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur, after the Piney Point processing plant developed a “significant leak” according to county officials cited by WTSP-TV. Saur said that a “structural collapse could occur at any time.”
Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the area on Saturday.
On Friday, the Manatee County Public Safety Department sent out emergency evacuation notices to those living within a half-mile of the facility, only to expand the orders to those within one mile north, and half-mile south of the reservoir’s stacks of phosphogypsum – a radioactive fertilizer waste product left over when phosphate ore is processed into a fertilizer component.
Nearby stretches of highway were also closed to traffic according to the report.
Mandatory evacuations were extended an additional half mile west and one mile southwest of the site on Saturday evening. Manatee County Public Safety Department said that 316 households are within the full evacuation area. – CBS News
The closure of U.S. 41 will be expanded south from Buckeye Road to Moccasin Wallow Road. Moccasin Wallow Road will be closed west of 38th Avenue East. There are an estimated 316 households in the evacuation area. Those households will all receive an emergency alert to evacuate https://t.co/6roRskVV0d
— MCG Public Works (@PW_ManateeGov) April 3, 2021
“In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals,” said the Center for Biological Diversity in a Saturday statement.
“For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates 5 tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous stacks hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall.”
According to Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, the “public must heed that notice to avoid harm.”
Officials are on site conducting a controlled release of water, roughly 22,000 gallons a minute.
The water that is currently being pumped out by officials in order to avoid a full collapse is a mix of sea water from a local dredge project, storm water and rain runoff. The water has not been treated.
“The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen,” said officials in a statement. “It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic.”
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a Saturday letter to DeSantis that an emergency session of Florida’s cabinet is in order to discuss the situation, adding that the leaking water is “contaminated, radioactive wastewater,” and not the plant’s first.
“For more than fifty years, this Central Florida mining operation has caused numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents,” she wrote.
“There have been numerous, well-documented failures — which continue today — of the property’s reservoir liner, including leaks, poor welds, holes, cracks and weaknesses that existed prior to purchase by the current owner, HRK Holdings, and exacerbated since.”
🚨 If you are in the area, follow directions from local officials and evacuate NOW if ordered. pic.twitter.com/3UUz4VikO5
— Commissioner Nikki Fried (@NikkiFriedFL) April 3, 2021
Video of a Manatee County Commissioners meeting provided insight into what happened prior to the leak. On Thursday afternoon, Jeff Barath, a representative for HRK Holdings, the company that owns the site, appeared emotionally distressed while briefing the Manatee County Commissioners about the situation.
“I’m very sorry,” he said. He told commissioners he had only slept a few hours that week because he was trying to fix the situation, and through tears, said he first noticed “increased conductivities within the site’s seepage collection system” 10 days prior on March 22. This system, he said, offers drainage around the gypsum stacks.
He said he immediately notified FDEP of his concerns.
“The water was changing around the seepage. We went into a very aggressive monitoring program,” he said, to find out where the seepage was coming from.
They discovered the south side of the stack system had “increased in conductivity” and that the acidity of the water, which is normally around a 4.6, had dropped to about a 3.5, which indicated an issue.
After a few days, the water chemistry had not improved and water flows were increasing from about 120 gallons a minute to more than 400 gallons per minute in less than 48 hours, Barath said. Last Saturday night, the flow rates increased to “rates that I could not even estimate to you,” he said.
Water was filling the stacks so quickly that the ground was starting to rise, Barath said. This “bulging” was temporarily stabilized but then extended hundreds of feet.
Barath submitted a report to the state on March 26, according to the state-run “Protecting Florida Together,” website, which was created by DeSantis to allow more transparency about state water issues.
“I was anticipating that the gypstack itself was destabilizing at a very rapid rate and recommended that we consider an emergency discharge,” he told commissioners. He said he feared that “overpressurizing” the system would result in “complete failure.”
“I’ve spent most of my days and nights constantly monitoring all aspects of this gypstack system and identifying failure points within it,” he said, noting that failure points were happening “constantly, I mean hourly.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said that it ordered the company to “take immediate action” to prevent further leaks. On March 30, the department said that “pipes at the facility are repaired” and controlled discharges were initiated to prevent any pressure buildup.
However, based on Barath’s testimony at the meeting, the situation was far from over. He concluded his address by saying they were doing “everything possible to prevent a true catastrophe.”