Workers battling to prevent the collapse of a central Florida reservoir containing hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water identified a potential second leak on Monday. But officials expressed hope that a dreaded “20ft wall of water”, resulting from a total failure of the reservoir walls, could yet be averted.
Wastewater has been gushing from a pool at the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant, south of Tampa, for a week, at a rate of 2m to 3m gallons a day.
Over the weekend, officials began pumping out water at a rate of 35m gallons a day – into the ecologically sensitive Tampa Bay, causing fears of an environmental catastrophe.
In a press conference on Monday, the Manatee county administrator, Scott Hopes, said workers had brought in more pumps and planned to more than double the amount of contaminated water being dumped from the reservoir into the bay, to 100m gallons a day.
Officials had warned that if the reservoir collapsed it could send a wall of water hurtling towards nearby residences.
“You could imagine if we go from 35m gallons a day to 100m gallons a day or more pulling it out you can see how probably within 48 hours, if all those flows continue, we will be in a situation where we will no longer have that risk of that full breach which would send that 20ft wall of water,” Hopes said.
As workers increased the flow of contaminated water from the reservoir, however, others were investigating a potential second leak, said Jacob Saur, county public safety director. Saur said an infrared drone had spotted activity north of the initial leak, which was being assessed.
Vern Buchanan, a congressman, took a helicopter tour of the site.
“To see the reality up there, it’s very concerning to me,” he said. “I know they’re making some progress but to see the water spewing out it looked pretty contaminated to me so I continue to be very concerned about this.
“I wanna be hopeful, optimistic, but just the fact we’re running water into Tampa Bay is not a great thing and a great place to be at.”
At the weekend Nikki Fried, the Florida agriculture commissioner and the only elected Democrat in statewide office, warned of an “environmental catastrophe”.
“Floridians were evacuated from their homes on Easter weekend. 480m gallons of toxic wastewater could end up in Tampa Bay – this might become an environmental catastrophe,” she said on Twitter.
But on Sunday Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, attempted to downplay reports that the water contained traces of radioactive materials.
“The water meets water quality standards, standards for marine waters, with the exception primarily of the phosphorus and the nitrogen,” he said.
Officials ordered residents of more than 300 houses to leave their homes. About 345 inmates were moved from a jail, with other inmates moved to the second floor.
The pond at the abandoned phosphate mine sits in a stack of phosphogypsum, a radioactive waste product from fertiliser manufacturing, and contains small amounts of radium and uranium. The stacks can also release large concentrations of radon gas.
Environmental protection groups warned that pumping more pollutants into Tampa Bay would heighten the risk to wildlife from toxic red tide algae blooms.
“Phosphate companies have had over 50 years to figure out a way to dispose of the radioactive gypsum wastes,” said the activist group Mana-Sota 88. “At the present time there are no federal, state or local regulations requiring the industry to make final disposition of phosphogypsum wastes in an environmentally acceptable manner.”
The group added: “The current crisis can be traced back to the absurd 2006 decision to allow dredged material from Port Manatee to be placed into one of the gyp stacks at Piney Point, something the stack was never designed for.”
Additional reporting by Richard Luscombe