‘Wall of Water’ if Piney Point Reservoir in Florida Breaches, Officials Warn

The authorities on Sunday said they were making progress in draining a leaking wastewater pond south of Tampa but urged residents to heed evacuation warnings.,

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Florida Reservoir Breach Could Cause Severe Flooding, Officials Say

The authorities in Florida said on Sunday that they were working to drain a leaking reservoir at a former phosphate mine in Manatee County, warning that a full breach could result in a 20-foot wall of water.

“Yesterday, due to potential of a breach of the south reservoir in Piney Point facility, I issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Manatee, as well as in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties due to the proximity of these counties to the Eastport Terminal facility. And what we’re looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation. Controlled discharges began on March 30 and continued today. The controlled discharges are averaging about 35 million gallons per day. Manatee County public safety officials sent out evacuation notices to residents and businesses in the surrounding area and assisted with the evacuation of 316 homes that were in the evacuation zone near Piney Point. To be clear, the water being discharged to Port Manatee is not radioactive. It is primarily saltwater from the Port Manatee dredge project, mixed with legacy process water and stormwater runoff. The water was tested prior to discharges. The primary concern is nutrients. The water meets water quality standards for marine waters, with the exception primarily of the phosphorus and the nitrogen.” “We’re down to about 340 million gallons that could breach in totality in a period of minutes. And the models for less than an hour are as high as a 20-foot wall of water.”

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The authorities in Florida said on Sunday that they were working to drain a leaking reservoir at a former phosphate mine in Manatee County, warning that a full breach could result in a 20-foot wall of water.CreditCredit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
April 4, 2021, 2:24 p.m. ET

The authorities in Florida said on Sunday that they were making progress in their efforts to drain a leaking reservoir holding more than 300 million gallons of wastewater but warned that were it to breach, it could result in a 20-foot wall of water.

“What we’re looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at news conference.

The governor issued an executive order on Saturday declaring a state of emergency for three counties that could be affected by the leaking 79-acre reservoir.

Controlled releases from the reservoir to reduce the chances of a full-fledged breach started on Friday, officials said, resulting in an average of 35 million gallons a day being siphoned.

Still, Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, warned that residents needed to be prepared for “further degradation” of the reservoir, which is part of a system of ponds connected to a former phosphate mine in Piney Point, Fla., south of Tampa.

Scott Hopes, the acting administrator for Manatee County, said the reservoir was down to about 340 million gallons but warned that models suggest that if the reservoir were to give way at that volume, it could result in a “20-foot wall of water” cascading across residential and commercial areas.

“If you are in an evacuation area, and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice and follow the orders,” he said.

ImageScott Hopes, the acting administrator of Manatee County, Fla., urged people who live in the evacuation area to leave their homes if they had not already done so.
Scott Hopes, the acting administrator of Manatee County, Fla., urged people who live in the evacuation area to leave their homes if they had not already done so.Credit…Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

On March 26, when the initial leak was reported, the reservoir held about 480 million gallons of water. Before officials started to pump water to reduce the threat of a breach, the reservoir was leaking at a rate of two million to three million gallons per day but conditions deteriorated in recent days, officials said.

More than 300 homes were under a mandatory evacuation order and arrangements had been made to put displaced residents in hotels and shelters. The Florida National Guard was bringing more pumps to augment the 20 pumps already deployed, officials said on Sunday.

The Manatee County Jail, which Mr. Hopes said is a two-story building, is in the evacuation zone. Inmates and staff members had been moved to the second floor — about 10 feet above expected flood levels — and sandbags had been placed at the ground level of the jail, Mr. Hopes said.

The water being discharged from the reservoir is seawater — primarily saltwater from a dredging project — “mixed with legacy process water and storm water runoff/rainfall,” according to a website tracking developments about the reservoir.

“The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen,” the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said. “It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern.”

Officials said the primary concern about the discharged water was the concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus but emphasized that the water was not radioactive.

A sudden, uncontrolled breach could upend stacks of phosphogypsum, a waste product of phosphate mining, that hold the ponds. Phosphogypsum contains “appreciable quantities” of radioactive materials, like uranium and radium, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The authorities said there were no public water supply wells in the evacuation zone.

Mr. Hopes said it was unlikely that officials would seek to repair a liner in the leaking reservoir. He suggested instead that efforts would be made to deplete the holding ponds and then move to a permanent solution, like filling and capping them.

He expressed hope on Sunday about heading off a catastrophe.

“We have a good plan in place,” he said. “We feel much better than we did three days ago.”

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