Floridians evacuated from Piney Point area can now return home — but the reservoir is still leaking

Four days after being told to evacuate due to the threat of a leaking wastewater reservoir, hundreds of residents of Manatee County, Florida, were allowed to return home on Tuesday, officials announced. However, the Piney Point facility, which was previously used to mine phosphate, continues to leak. 

Jacob Saur, the county’s director of public safety, said Tuesday that the evacuation orders were lifted, effective immediately. Some road closures, however, will remain in place due to “future concerns.” The 137 people and their pets who were placed in non-congregate shelters will also be allowed to return home. U.S. 41 was also reopened in the area on Tuesday.

County commissioners extended the local state of emergency on Tuesday morning. 

Water is being pumped out, and a new inundation map from the Army Corps of Engineers shows that there is “much lower flow” in terms of volume and velocity across the affected area. The previous inundation map that was used for developing response plans had indicated that a “20-foot tidal wave” could be unleashed on the area if the facility broke apart. While such a massive wave is no longer expected, officials are still working to avoid a structural collapse. 

Although the evacuation orders were lifted, the south pond was still leaking as of Tuesday afternoon. However, Saur said, “seepage rates have decreased,” and lake levels have been reduced to 59.2 feet, “which is down significantly since the onset of the incident.” 

Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said that officials have “successfully controlled” the release of over 180 million gallons of water out of the southern stack at the facility. More than 35 million gallons are being removed from the southern stack per day, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. 

The uncontrolled release of water coming through the leak in this stack, Hopes said, is now staying on site. 

“The good news is that we believe that the risk has been successfully mitigated and lessened so we could cancel that evacuation order,” he said.

It was explained at a county commission meeting earlier on Tuesday that officials have redirected the leaking water to go around the stack and that the water is being pumped into an unused and lined retention pond at the facility. 

Though officials have said that the water leaking out of the facility is not radioactive, there is still concern about its chemical content. The reservoir ponds contains photogypsum stacks, which are essentially made up of the waste from processing phosphate ore into fertilizer. The Center for Biological Diversity has said that phosphogypsum can contain carcinogens and “toxic” metals. 

Water from 11 locations is now being sampled daily to monitor levels of salinity, pH, nutrient levels, radionuclides and other variables that could indicate health and environmental issues. The state released its first batch of data from these sample sites on Tuesday, but not all of the indicators are yet available. The state said on its website that samples have met “all water quality standards.” 

Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced just before Tuesday’s press conference that the EPA will offer additional resources to help with water sampling and analysis at and around Piney Point.

EPA continues to support the state of Florida in response efforts at Piney Point.
 
At my direction, the agency today is offering additional resources to support sampling and analysis activities to inform our understanding of the water characteristics and environmental risks.

Starting on Wednesday, crews will be on site to work on a submersible remote-operated vehicle to find the actual leak in the liner in the south pond, Kevin Gutherie, director of emergency management, said. Once the leak is found, crews will create a patchwork to offer a “temporary solution.” 

“Our goal is to buy the Department of Environmental Protection some time to actually do a more controlled type of situation and be able to treat the water with technology and things like that,” Gutherie said. 

Quick video update of what it’s looking like right now at #PineyPoint. pic.twitter.com/6uao9yfdkM

Earlier Tuesday, county commissioners unanimously voted to authorize the use of a deep water injection well on county-owned property that will hold processed water from the Piney Point wastewater ponds.

Commissioners will have “total control” over the well, located directly south of the facility on Buckeye Road, within EPA and DEP guidelines. The commission will have overall authority of well design and construction. A contract has not yet been chosen for well construction. 

“It also allows us to dictate the quality of the water before it goes into the well,” Manatee County Commission chairwoman Vanessa Baugh said. “In other words, residents and businesses owners of North Manatee can rest assured that the water atop those stacks will be treated before it goes into the well and then capped to ensure no other water enters that well.” 

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