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Environmental Effects of Piney Point Leak into Tampa Bay

Last week, emergency crews in Tampa Bay were using pumps and vacuum trucks to drain out wastewater from entering Florida’s waterways when a tear in the lining of the pool that was holding this substance occurred. This 77-acre containment pond has a mix of seawater, nitrogen, and phosphate. The wastewater comes from Piney Point, an abandoned phosphate plant in Manatee County, that stored the industrial byproducts for a long time.

Piney Point closed down twenty years ago when it declared bankruptcy and now contains 480 million gallons of wastewater owned by HRK Holdings. This potential spill was a threat to the local communities as it could have unleashed a 20-foot wave of contaminated water, as officials declared.

Therefore, the state had to pump the millions of gallons of wastewater into a cargo port along the eastern shore of Tampa Bay called Port Manatee. Although this transfer of water stopped a huge catastrophe for the surrounding residents, scientists and environmentalists fear the toll this will take on the bay’s ecosystem. Draining the whole pond would mean “a year’s worth of [nutrient pollution] being delivered from one source over a two-week period,” said the assistant director of the Tampa Bay Estuary program, Maya Burke. 

Funneling wastewater into the port would be a disaster for marine life and could jeopardize human health and local businesses. The wastewater would lead to seagrass dying first because when nutrients flood these waters, they fuel algae growth in a process known as eutrophication. This process has such an exponential growth in algae, that it blankets the surface, decreasing light source for seagrass. This would in turn affect underwater habitats that need it, such as fish nurseries and juvenile manatees. Similarly, when the dead plant matter starts to decompose, this will lead to an increase of carbon dioxide and change the pH of the waters. This could disrupt the balance of the environment known as ocean acidification. 

The worst-case scenario would be that the excess of nutrients could cause a red tide. Red tide is a toxic algal bloom that would destroy Florida’s coastlines by killing fish, turtles, dolphins, and manatees. With all these potential and known effects, officials are testing the waters and monitoring any changes in the bay’s water quality. 

However, environmentalists say that this incident is a disaster that has been threatening them for years. The ponds were constructed above a phosphogypsum stack, which is a pile of radioactive byproduct from the producing phosphorus. This was brought to attention in 2004 to investigate the long-term effects of this byproduct and its relations with cancer.

Other cases include the one in 1997 when heavy rains filled the pond and broke a dike that led to 55 million gallons of wastewater in the Alafia River, killing one million fish. Another case was in 2006 when a sinkhole opened the phosphogypsum stack, draining 215 million gallons of wastewater. A more recent incident occurred in September of last year when a site manager warned the county commissioners that the pond was quickly reaching capacity, with the potential to pollute Tampa Bay.

Since Florida produces eighty percent of the phosphate mined in the U.S., this means that there are dozens of plants like these with failing and crumbling infrastructure all over Florida. The state has declared this situation as a state of emergency and has reached out to the national Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps Engineers as well as other companies. After this current issue is resolved, authorities have the goal in mind to shut this down permanently.

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