The 2021 Florida Wastewater Reservoir Leak: Risks and Precautions

On Saturday, April 3, Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Florida, due to a serious leak from a pond at the Piney Point phosphate mine. This leak was a cause for major concern as it compromised the security of a water storage system. The mine in which the leak originated is located in an abandoned phosphate plant, which produced fertilizer into the late 1990s and was officially shut down in 2001. After its abandonment, stacks of gypsum and contaminated ponds of wastewater remained. This created an ongoing concern for environmental hazards and dangers to those living around the area, as nearly 340 million gallons of water could be dispersed around the area.

Local news and Florida history tells that this is not the first time an environmental threat has stemmed from chemical plants, let alone in Piney Creek. In 2001, a tropical storm created a threat of overflow from the wastewater pond, and the same event occurred in 2003. Once again in 2011, another environmental threat stemmed from the abandoned site, when a gypsum stack was pierced and contaminated water.

When the leak was first detected, approximately 300 homes around the Piney Point reservoir were ordered to evacuate by the Manatee County Public Safety Department, and other safety precautions were put in place. Several inmates at the Manatee County Jail were transported from their facilities, as a precaution if flooding were to occur. Manatee County schools suspended bus transportation for those located within the evacuation zone. 

The water from the pond in question contained an abundance of phosphorus and nitrogen. This type of toxic waste threatens existing ecosystems and water sources. Officials attempted to seal the rupture point but were not successful in their initial attempt. This was a cause for major concern, and the threat of the leak flooding into nearby areas and Tampa Bay would displace hundreds of families and homes. Additionally, with there being mass amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen, the contamination of local waterways would ultimately lead to red tides and algal blooms. When this occurs, oxygen is removed from the water, causing harm to fish and other marine life in the bay. Moreover, there was uneasiness regarding the possibility of aquifer contamination, which would leave many without clean or drinkable water for days.

Family on the Beach Photo by Kevin Delvecchio from Unsplash

On Tuesday, April 5, the evacuation order was lifted, and residents of Piney Point returned to their homes. However, the leak continues to pose a threat and the future of the abandoned phosphate plant remains in question. In the meantime, officials have been pumping the water from the burst into another pond, in an effort to control the contamination. The worries of the water being radioactive have been eased, as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, sampled water and debunked this theory. 

The water, which is being pumped to avoid future troubles, is said to be a combination of seawater and rain runoff, although untreated. While many are concerned with the contents of the water and its’ effects on the environment, testing has proved that it is not radioactive and meets water quality standards. While the situation is thought to be under control, the future of Piney Creek and other areas surrounding wastewater reservoirs remains in question.

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