Chattanooga Times Free Press

Evacuation order lifted at leaky phosphate reservoir

- BY CURT ANDERSON

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A mandatory evacuation order near a leaking Florida wastewater reservoir that affected more than 300 homes and additional businesses was lifted Tuesday as officials said the situation was under control.

With the deployment of more than two dozen pumps and other equipment, fears have eased that the reservoir from an old phospate fertilizer plant would burst through its earthen walls and cause widespread flooding in Manatee County, just south of Tampa.

The reservoir initially held about 480 million gallons of contaminat­ed water, but much has been drained away once the leak was discovered.

“The mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted,” said Scott Hopes, the county administra­tor. “We believe the risk has been mitigated and controlled.”

Earlier, officials announced that a major highway near the site, U.S. 41, would be reopened.

The decisions on Tuesday come as Florida lawmakers are proposing to spend up to $200 million to clean up and close the wastewater reservoir. But it was not immediatel­y clear how officials plan to tackle what would be a huge engineerin­g challenge.

The state Senate president, Republican Wilton Simpson, said a legislativ­e committee on Wednesday will take up an amendment to use federal money for the project. Its sponsor is Sen. Jim Boyd, a Republican from Bradenton where the Piney Point reservoir is located.

“This has been a catastroph­e waiting to happen for too long,” Simpson said in a statement. “We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in five, 10 or 20 years.”

A House committee is also expected to consider a similar bill Wednesday.

Under the proposals, the money would come from the $1.9 trillion coronaviru­s stimulus package signed into law in March by President Joe Biden.

“This is a huge step forward for our community,” Boyd said.

Nikki Fried, the state commission­er of the Agricultur­e and Consumer Services Department, toured the site Tuesday and told reporters the situation appears to have stabilized.

“It seems like this is under control, as much as something like this could be under control,” said Fried, a Democrat. “We need to take immediate action to fix this.”

The reservoir, and two others nearby, sit in stacks of phosphogyp­sum, a solid radioactiv­e byproduct from manufactur­ing fertilizer from an old phosphate plant that is no longer in operation.

The Florida Department of Environmen­tal Protection says the water in the pond is primarily saltwater mixed with wastewater and stormwater. It has elevated levels of phosphorou­s and nitrogen and is acidic, but does not appear to be toxic. It is not radioactiv­e.

The agency said dozens of pumps and 10 vacuum trucks have been deployed to remove more than 35 million gallons of wastewater per day into the Tampa Bay estuary, where 11 different sampling operations are monitoring water quality and considerin­g ways of minimizing algae blooms that kill marine life and make beachgoing hazardous to humans in the tourismdep­endent state.

 ?? PEDRO PORTAL/MIAMI HERALD VIA AP ?? Nikki Fried, Florida Commission­er of Agricultur­e and Consumer Services, speaks as state Sen. Janet Cruz, left, D-Dist. 18, listens during a news conference Tuesday at the Manatee County Public Safety Building in Bradenton, Fla.
PEDRO PORTAL/MIAMI HERALD VIA AP Nikki Fried, Florida Commission­er of Agricultur­e and Consumer Services, speaks as state Sen. Janet Cruz, left, D-Dist. 18, listens during a news conference Tuesday at the Manatee County Public Safety Building in Bradenton, Fla.

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