Reports of a second breach at a wastewater reservoir in central Florida are “unsubstantiated”, a state agency said, as workers nonetheless battled to prevent hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water causing a catastrophic flood.
On Monday, officials warned there could be a second leak in the pool at the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant, south of Tampa, which has been gushing wastewater from a breached wall for a week, at a rate of 2m to 3m gallons a day.
The Florida department of environmental protection subsequently said engineers had found no evidence of another breach. But fears continue over the ecological impact of pumping the leaking wastewater into the Tampa Bay. The water has elevated levels of nitrogen and is acidic, which can kill fish and cause algal blooms.
The state DEP said dozens of pumps and 10 vacuum trucks had been deployed to pump up to 100m gallons of the toxic water a day into the Tampa Bay estuary, in an attempt to prevent a reservoir collapse officials said could send a “20ft wall of water” into the surrounding area.
Fears of a complete breach led authorities to evacuate more than 300 homes, close portions of a major highway and move several hundred jail inmates to a second floor.
Melissa Fitzsimmons lives with her husband and 19-month-old daughter in Palmetto, on the edge of the evacuation zone. She told the Associated Press that for the past four days she had been terrified.
While her house is on a hill and may not be directly affected if a flood occurs, Fitzsimmons said her family was preparing for the worst.
“Within 24 hours it escalated to like a catastrophic evacuation, and we really didn’t know anything until we saw that there was an evacuation and then suddenly an evacuation within the block of our house,” Fitzsimmons said.
“We’re not in the full on evacuation zone so we didn’t make the decision to leave, but we are certainly ready to go, I would say within like a 10-second notice, we can be out the door.”
A series of sampling operations are monitoring water quality in the Tampa Bay, the state DEP said, and officials are working on ways to minimize algal blooms that kill marine life and could make beaches hazardous to humans in the tourism-dependent state.
The pond sits in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct from making fertilizer. State authorities say the water in the breached pond is not radioactive.
Vern Buchanan, a congressman, said federal resources were committed to assisting the effort to control the 77-acre reservoir. Among those are the Environmental Protection Agency and the army corps of engineers, Buchanan told reporters.
“I think we are making some progress,” he said. “This is something that has been going on too long. Now, I think everybody is focused on this.”
The Piney Point reservoir and others like it have been left unaddressed for far too long, environmental groups say.
“This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than 1bn tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now.”
Dale Rucker, a hydrologist and former editor of the Journal of Environmental and Engineering Geophysics, said the leak is a reminder governments need to pay attention to ageing infrastructure.
“Continued neglect can have serious environmental consequences like we are seeing,” Rucker said. “These environmental catastrophes are going to happen with higher probability.”