Florida emergency teams were working on Sunday to prevent an environmental catastrophe. A wastewater reservoir is in danger of bursting and dumping millions of contaminated liters into nearby homes and Tampa Bay.
More than 300 homes near an abandoned phosphate mine and a fertilizer factory in Manatee County are under evacuation order, while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on Saturday to release funds and face the crisis.
“What we are trying to do now is to prevent and respond, if necessary, to a catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis told a news conference on Sunday after visiting the area by helicopter.
The governor explained that emergency teams, supported by the Florida National Guard, were pumping about 33 million gallons a day (almost 125,000 cubic meters) of wastewater from a reservoir that had cracks in its plastic liner.
“According to the engineers at the site, a controlled discharge was necessary to prevent a catastrophe,” said DeSantis.
The effluent “meets the quality levels for marine waters,” he said, with the exception of phosphorus and nitrogen.
Seaweed grows very fast in these elements, and environmental groups fear that a discharge into the ocean of thousands of liters of these nutrient-rich waters could cause a deadly “red tide” or algae explosion, wiping out fish and aquatic life, in addition to impair tourist activity.
The plastic shell of the reservoir, which contains more than a million cubic meters of dredging or rainwater, began to leak a few days ago.
The rupture of the reservoir can also cause stocks of phosphogypsum stored near the area to mix with the water and contaminate the local ecosystem.
This substance, residue from the production of fertilizers, is considered radioactive because it contains isotopes such as radon, in addition to toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.
The national conservation group Center for Biological Diversity has asked for the intervention of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
“Federal authorities need to fix this mess that the fertilizer industry has left in Florida communities and immediately stop phosphogypsum production,” said the organization’s director in Florida, Jaclyn Lopez, in a statement.
– Turbulent history –
Manatee County authorities have ordered a “complete evacuation” of the area, including 316 homes.
The problems at Piney Point, however, go back decades.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nicole Fried wrote to DeSantis noting that the current emergency was only the most recent in a series of incidents.
“For more than 50 years, this mining operation in central Florida has caused numerous disasters and incidents for human and environmental health,” he wrote, adding that there have been several previous problems with the deposit lining.
Acting Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes said the authorities are trying to permanently empty the reservoirs.
“We are not going to repair the liner, we are going to deplete the water in the remaining tanks and move towards a permanent solution in the future, as soon as we mitigate the current risk,” said Hopes at a news conference.
DeSantis also indicated that the company that operated the site, HRK Holdings, must be held responsible for what happened.
“This is not acceptable and it is not something that we are going to authorize to continue,” he launched.
HRK did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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