Florida officials are pumping the contaminated water from the Piney Point reservoir into Tampa Bay to avoid a major flood, but experts are concerned the solution may prove to be disastrous.
The polluted Piney Point reservoir is located at the former Piney Point phosphate plant and contains a mixture of stormwater runoff, seawater, and leftover water from the fertilizer manufacturing process, according to Manatee County's Acting Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, who represents Sarasota and the Manatee County area, toured the region in a helicopter ride on Monday ahead of a press conference with Florida officials. He said he feared a "red tide" in the nearby waterway stemming from the contaminated water and said he thought he spotted algae blooms when surveying the area.
Despite his fears, Buchanan acquiesced that diverting the contaminated water into Tampa Bay was the best solution for the crisis.
"The fact that we're running water into the Tampa Bay is not a great thing and not a great place to be at, but the reality of it is it seems like it's the right thing to do right now," Buchanan said.
One hydrogeologist told Insider he agreed officials were taking the best steps to mitigate the damage so far, but said it could damage the local ecosystem.
"There is a risk to sea life and the estuaries," said Dale Rucker, the chief technical officer at Hydrogeophysics, "but you also have to balance that risk with what could potentially be an extremely fatal disaster with a flood from the pond itself."
If the water from the reservoir spawns enough algae, Rucker said, it could be catastrophic to the local wildlife.
"Generally, if you increase the nutrient loads to estuaries, it's called eutrophication," Rucker said. "It can cause fish kills because it gets hypoxic and algae may take over, cutting sunlight. If you cut sunlight, seagrass may not be able to grow."
The effects of dumping reservoir water into Tampa Bay could take months to fully materialize, according to Ed Sherwood, the director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.
"What has been discharged to the bay so far is equivalent to like 50 to 60,000 bags of fertilizer being dumped in all at one time," Sherwood said in an interview with 10 Tampa Bay. That amount, he said, has already doubled the nutrients in the water that could lead to algae blooms.—Josh Sidorowicz WTSP(@JoshWTSP) April 6, 2021
Florida officials were initially afraid the reservoir water was also radioactive due to the phosphogypsum stack in reservoir, a byproduct of the fertilizer process that contains uranium and radium — two radioactive elements. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the water tested negative for any signs of radiation on Monday evening.
Florida officials said on Monday an infrared drone had spotted a second leak in the reservoir, but later retracted the statement after further review and said the leak did not exist.
"There have been news reports of a second area of seepage from the east wall of the NGS-South compartment at Piney Point," according to the announcement from the Florida DEP. "These reports are unsubstantiated."
The FLDEP said the risk of the reservoir flooding is still possible, but revealed that the "uncontrolled" leak seeping thousands of gallons of contaminated water into a nearby creek has been rectified.
Yelena Dzhanova contributed reporting.