Tampa Toxic Wastewater Reservoir On Brink of Collapse

On Saturday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Manatee County, Florida as a wastewater reservoir at the Piney Point facility was on the verge of collapsing and causing a catastrophic situation. 

As the New York Times reported, the reservoir holds nearly 400 million gallons of wastewater from a former phosphate mine that was leaking on Saturday, prompting hundreds of evacuations throughout the surrounding area. The wastewater has the potential to gush out in a matter of minutes with the potential to create a 20-foot-high wall of water that could ultimately empty into Tampa Bay.

Why This Matters: As is too often the case, this pit of toxic waste was left behind by industry for the local government to manage. Piney Point’s owner, Mulberry Corp., declared bankruptcy in 2001 and abandoned the plant without a feasible solution of how to clean up the waste. Polluters must be held liable for the damage they cause the public and the environment. There are several policy ideas for how this can be done.

Why do these reservoirs exist in the first place? As the Washington Post explained, in the process of turning phosphate into fertilizer, phosphogypsum — a slurry mixture that contains uranium and is slightly radioactive — is left as a byproduct, said Matthew Pasek, a geoscience professor at the University of South Florida.

As a result, there’s lots of this waste product that is left over,” he said. “And you can’t do anything with it.”

  • To manage that waste product, the phosphogypsum is put into mountainous waste piles called gypsum stacks.
  • Ponds of phosphorous-rich wastewater sit on top of them.
  • Such stacks are common in Florida, a major hub for the phosphate mining industry dating to the late 1800s, Pasek said.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune wrote that State Rep. Will Robinson said a permanent solution has been difficult to find over the years because the private property has changed owners multiple times, and government officials have continuously debated over proper solutions, as well as whether taxpayer funding should be used to clean up private property.

What’s Next? CBS News reported that at a press conference Sunday morning, DeSantis said officials are pumping out 33 million gallons of water a day from the pond, and that the water “is not radioactive,” although another official added that the water is “not water we want to see leaving the site.”

  • The primary concern, DeSantis said, is the nutrient makeup of the water, which contains metals.
  • Reports on water samples should be available in the coming days.

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