Sun Sentinel Broward Edition

Evacuated residents return; leaders propose $200M cleanup

- By Curt Anderson COURTESY

BRADENTON — Saying the danger had diminished, officials allowed hundreds of evacuated residents to return to their homes and businesses near a wastewater reservoir that had been threatenin­g to burst open and unleash massive flooding.

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

Earlier, Florida lawmakers proposed spending $200 million to clean up and close the phosphate mining reservoir at Piney Point. But it was not immediatel­y clear how officials plan to tackle the 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.

“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.

More than 300 homes were evacuated as well as local businesses when the reservoir holding millions of gallons of water appeared poised to burst open.

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

An aerial photo shows the phosphogyp­sum stacks at the former Piney Point phosphate plant, where one stack is in danger of imminent collapse, officials in Florida say.

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 tourism-dependent state.

Under the Florida Senate bill, once the money is approved, the Department of Environmen­tal Protection would use competitiv­e bidding to select a company to handle the shutdown of the site. The precise contours of that plan are not yet clear.

Glenn Compton, director of the ManaSota-88 environmen­tal group, said nothing like this has ever been done in Florida before.

“Nobody can say exactly how it would be done. That remains to be seen,” Compton said. “How they cap this would be an engineerin­g feat that has never before been done.”

Some ideas on the table include deep-well injection to send the water thousands of feet undergroun­d, but that comes with its own concerns about contaminat­ion.

As for the reservoir, Compton said there have been discussion­s of using fly ash, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants, which would eventually harden and prevent the reservoir from filling with water again.

There are about two dozen other sites in Florida containing about 1 billion tons of this phosphate production byproduct, officials have said.

“If we are destroying our environmen­t, we are destroying our state,” Fried said. “We’ve got to make the environmen­t our top priority.”

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