Florida rules out second risk of phosphate deposit breakdown


S T. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Engineers and dam safety specialists who assessed the danger of a catastrophic flooding from a leaking Florida sewage reservoir determined that the threat of a possible second breach was “unproven,” said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Authorities had said Monday that a drone discovered a possible second breach in the reservoir, the east wall of which continues to show “concentrated seepage.” But on Monday night, experts from four government agencies and outside engineers concluded that it was safe to continue working on this second site, the agency announced.

Meanwhile, the agency said dozens of pumps and 10 vacuum trucks have been deployed to remove 35 million gallons (132 million liters) of wastewater per day in the Tampa Bay estuary, where 11 different sampling operations they are monitoring water quality and considering ways to minimize algae. blooms that kill marine life and make the beach dangerous to humans in the tourism-dependent state.

“All information on water quality concludes that this water is NOT radioactive,” the agency tweeted.

Federal Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican, toured the area by helicopter Monday and said federal resources were committed to assist in the effort to control the 77-acre (33-hectare) Piney Point Reservoir in Manatee County, just south of the Tampa Bay area. .

Among them are the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, Buchanan said at a news conference.

“I think we are making some progress,” Buchanan said. “This is something that has been going on for far too long. Now, I think everyone is focused on this. “

Fears of a complete breach at a former phosphate plant prompted authorities to evacuate more than 300 homes, close parts of a main road and move several hundred nearby prisoners to a second floor of the facility.

The main concern is that a complete rupture of the reservoir would cause major flooding in nearby homes and businesses, authorities said. The pumps are designed to slowly drain the water and divert it to Tampa Bay, which could have negative environmental consequences, such as fish kills and algae blooms.

Melissa Fitzsimmons lives with her husband and 19-month-old daughter in Palmetto, Florida, on the edge of the evacuation zone. Fitzsimmons said she has been terrified for the past four days since she learned of the leak. While her home is on a hill and may not be directly affected by the water if the leak continues to grow, Fitzsimmons said her family is preparing for the worst.

“Within 24 hours it escalated into a catastrophic evacuation, and we really didn’t know anything until we saw that there was an evacuation and then all of a sudden an evacuation within the block of our house,” Fitzsimmons said. “We are not in the full evacuation zone, so we did not make the decision to leave, but we are certainly ready to go, I would say within 10 seconds notice, we can leave.

Scott Hopes, the Manatee County manager, said the additional pumps should increase capacity for controlled wastewater discharges to 100 million gallons (379 million liters) per day.

“This has become a very focused local, state and national issue,” Hopes said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says that the pond water is primarily salt water mixed with sewage and storm water. It has elevated levels of phosphorus and nitrogen and is acidic, but is not expected to be toxic, the agency says.

The ponds are in piles of phosphorous gypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct of fertilizer manufacturing. State authorities say the water from the broken pond is not radioactive.

Still, the EPA says that too much nitrogen in wastewater causes algae to grow faster, leading to fish kills. Some of these blooms can also harm humans who come into contact with contaminated water or eat contaminated fish.

The Piney Point reservoir, and others like it that store the phosphorous gypsum byproduct, have not been tackled for too long, environmental groups say.

“This environmental disaster is compounded by the fact that it was completely predictable and preventable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With 24 more piles of phosphorous gypsum storing more than 1 billion tons of this dangerous radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA must step in now.”

Dale Rucker, a hydrologist and former editor of the Journal of Environmental and Engineering Geophysics, says the leak is a reminder that governments must pay attention to aging infrastructure that could endanger the environment and put communities at serious risk.

“Continued neglect can have serious environmental consequences like the ones we are seeing,” Rucker said. “These environmental catastrophes are going to happen with greater probability.”

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Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Lincon in Miami and Anila Yoganathan in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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