Possible Second Breach Investigated in Leaking Florida Reservoir, Officials Say
The authorities said more pumps were expected to be used in the hopes of doubling the volume of water being removed, to up to 100 million gallons a day.,
Officials in Florida on Monday investigated the possibility of a second breach in a leaking reservoir south of Tampa that was holding nearly 300 million gallons of wastewater.
Jacob Saur, the Manatee County public safety director, said an infrared drone had identified signs overnight that could indicate a second breach at the reservoir, part of a system of ponds connected to a former phosphate mine in Piney Point, Fla.
The discovery prompted an engineering team at the site to evacuate, but the team had returned by Monday afternoon to investigate, Mr. Saur said at a news conference.
“Our No. 1 priority as we move through this incident is to make sure that the residents, those who are working on the site are continuing to remain safe, and that the site is safe for us to continue to do our operations,” Mr. Saur said.
By Monday evening, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had discounted concerns of a possible second leak. In a statement posted on Twitter, the department cited “news reports of a second area of seepage” and called those reports “unsubstantiated.”
More than 300 homes remained under a mandatory evacuation order that was imposed after the discovery of the initial leak. Officials said on Sunday that they were making progress in their efforts to drain the reservoir, but warned that if it were to breach, it could result in a 20-foot wall of water.
After taking a helicopter tour of the reservoir Monday morning, Representative Vern Buchanan, Republican of Florida, said at the news conference that he was concerned about the leak of wastewater into a nearby creek.
“I know they’re making some progress, but to see the water spewing out, it looked pretty contaminated to me,” Mr. Buchanan said.
Mr. Buchanan thanked the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for their “unified command” on the leak, but expressed concerns about the impact the leak could have on homes, property and the environment.
“When I see water flowing into Tampa Bay, frankly, it makes me sick about it,” Mr. Buchanan said.
Scott Hopes, the acting Manatee County administrator, said the most recent estimate since Sunday was that slightly less than 300 million gallons of wastewater remained in the reservoir, down from about 340 million gallons.
Additional pumps were expected to come online on Monday, which Mr. Hopes said would more than double the rate at which water was being taken out of the reservoir, to 75 million to 100 million gallons a day from 35 million gallons on Monday morning.
“You can see how we can more rapidly deplete the volume in a retaining pool, which is at greater — greatest — risk,” Mr. Hopes said, adding that by the end of Monday, the county expected to have a clearer picture of the situation.
Dale Rucker, chief technical officer for hydroGEOPHYSICS Inc., a company in Tucson, Ariz., that offers geophysical services to the environmental, engineering, mining and oil and gas industries, said Florida officials were facing extraordinary circumstances. Customarily, he said, the discharge of so much wastewater would require permits, environmental assessments and public input.
“Unfortunately, they did not have that luxury this time,” Dr. Rucker said. “Beating the clock is a big factor here. I imagine they are making difficult decisions under high duress that they would not normally make.”
As the authorities battled the leak, which appeared to have been caused by a tear in a liner, Dr. Rucker said officials also had to be concerned with a weakening of the earthen impoundment holding back the water, likening that dynamic to what happened to the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
“The Achilles’ heel of any containment system is water,” Dr. Rucker said.
Dr. Rucker said it was possible that the reservoir might not be heavily contaminated, noting that he had read reports that ducks and fish were spotted in the reservoir. Still, Dr. Rucker said he hoped the water was being discharged into multiple bodies of water, so that not just one would be overloaded with nutrients that could be harmful to fish and plants.
As climate change brings more intense rains, Dr. Rucker said, consideration must be made for how such reservoirs are designed.
“If they’re decades old,” Dr. Rucker said, “the climate assessment and the risk is different now than it was then.”