Emergency Declared in Florida after Pond Contaminated with Radioactive Waste Starts Collapsing

Several residents in Manatee County were evacuated after a leak was reported at a large pond at the old Piney Point phosphate mine.

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A state of emergency was declared in Florida on Saturday after a leak at a large pond at the old Piney Point phosphate mine threatened to collapse a system that stores water polluted with radioactive materials. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took note of the situation before declaring an emergency.

Several residents in Manatee County were evacuated from their homes following the announcement that threatens massive loss of lives if the situation is not brought under control. The Manatee County Public Safety Department told people near the plant to evacuate due to an "imminent uncontrolled release of wastewater."

Danger Looms Large

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Wikimedia Commons

A significant leak at a large pond of wastewater was discovered on Friday at the old Piney Point phosphate mine in the Tampa Bay area north of Bradenton. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the significant leak was detected in one of the walls of a 77-acre pond that is 25 feet deep and holds millions of gallons of water containing phosphorus and nitrogen from the old phosphate plant.

"A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally," said Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur, "signifying that structural collapse could occur at any time."

Following the detection, officials started evacuating homes and closed off a highway near the reservoir. Homes that are a mile north and a half-mile south of the pond also received an alert via text asking them to immediately evacuate the area because a collapse was "imminent". Manatee County Public Safety Department said that 316 households are within the full evacuation area.

Waste material on the property is stored in water-covered stacks of phosphogypsum. Phosphogypsum is the "radioactive waste" left over from processing phosphate ore into a state that can be used for fertilizer, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The pond at the reservoir contains small amounts of naturally occurring radium and uranium, and the stacks can also release large concentrations of radon gas.

What's at Stake?

Tampa Bay Area Florida
Tampa Bay Area Florida PIxabay

Officials in Florida said in a statement that the primary concern from the collapse would be flooding. Moreover, the water that is being discharged is "slightly acidic." "It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic."

The decision to evacuate the homes was taken after efforts to plug the hole were unsuccessful. Authorities expanded the evacuation area later on Saturday to include more homes, but said they were not planning to open shelters.

Officials are concerned more about a huge flood that could pose as a problem for residents. Hopes added that the pond is "basically salt water" but said if the pond collapses, there is a risk it could destabilize the walls of other areas in the plant that could pose much more hazardous problems.

Workers were pumping out thousands of gallons per minute to bring the volume down. Pumping the entire pond would take 10 to 12 days. Others were working to chart a path for controlling how the water can flow from the pond into the Tampa Bay.

What is of bigger concern is that the nearby ponds will be threatened if the walls collapse as there is a lot of wildlife there. The wastewater in the other ponds would then need to be treated to reduce ammonium content and other materials, Hopes said.

This isn't the first time that such a situation has taken place in Florida. In 2011, Piney Point experience a major spill that was twice as large as estimated as it leaked around 170 million gallons of seawater contaminated with toxic and heavy metals into Bishop Harbor and lower Tampa Bay, Sarasota Herald-Tribune had reported at the time.

Again in 2016, a massive sinkhole opened up in a pond of phosphogypsum stack in another fertilizer plant in central Florida, leaking more than 200 million gallons of contaminated waste water into one of the state´s main aquifers.