Sunday, April 04, 2021

Breach at Piney Point prompts evacuation as threat of collapse ‘changing by the hours’. (Bradenton Herald)

 Florida is a maladroit environmental regulator. 

Here's another preventable potential Florida disaster -- reminds me of preventable Tennessee Valleu Authority December 22, 2008 Kingston, Tenn. coal mine waste dam collapse, and preventable fatal February 26, 1972 Pittston Coal Company West Virginia coal waste dam disaster, documented in Arnold & Porter law firm partner Gerald M. Stern's book, "The Buffalo Creek Disaster." My late friend David Thundershield Queen said Florida DEP stands for "Don't Expect Protection."

Breach at Piney Point prompts evacuation as threat of collapse ‘changing by the hours’

UPDATED APRIL 03, 2021 11:40 AM

Editor's note: The Bradenton Herald has lifted the paywall on for this developing story, providing critical information to readers during this public safety emergency. To support vital local journalism such as this, please consider a digital subscription.

Update: Public safety officials have announced new and immediate evacuations around the Piney Point phosphate mine, declaring the collapse of the gypsum stack is “imminent.” Read the developing story here.

Manatee County issued an emergency evacuation order for nearby residents of the troubled Piney Point industrial site after a breach was discovered Friday afternoon. The crisis sparked fears of an environmental disaster: millions of gallons of polluted water flooding neighborhoods and the collapse of gypsum stacks containing radioactive material.

“Working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, HRK Holdings and county administration, we felt that the threat was imminent and ordered an evacuation,” said Manatee County Director of Public Safety Jacob Saur, whose department includes emergency management.

The evacuation order includes people who live south of Buckeye Road East from 31st Terrace East to Oneil Road and north of 113th Street East. Those residents need to evacuate their homes immediately. 

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The Red Cross has been called in to assist residents who need help seeking shelter at a hotel, Saur said. Residents with questions can call 311

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol closed off the roads.

Local and state emergency management teams descended on the scene after the breach was observed in the wall of a leaking pond, which holds 400 million gallons of water containing phosphorus and nitrogen from the old phosphate mining property. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus leads to polluted water and algae, resulting in serious environmental and health issues.

A “breakout of seepage” along the eastern wall of the New Gypsum Stack South reservoir was detected around 4 p.m. Friday, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Residents in the 1/2-mile area were sent emergency evacuation notifications on their smartphones.

“FDEP’s Emergency Management staff are on site and coordinating with Manatee County to provide assistance with an engineered blockade of natural landscape to halt the breakout to contain the system,” Weesam Khoury, FDEP’s press secretary, said in a statement.

The county’s Emergency Management and Public Works teams also responded. Throughout the evening, crews worked to control the flow of the water and prevent the gypsum stack from collapsing by adding fill materials at the base to stabilize the area.

The seepage breach is concentrated in a section of the wall about 30 feet off the ground.

“They are actively backing up the support of the southeast wall, and we are prepared to source additional rock,” Acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said during a Friday night press conference. 

There are three gypsum stacks on the site, but as of Friday night, engineers believed that the New Gypsum Stack South is the only one in danger of collapsing. If it does, engineers don’t expect the other two gypsum stacks to be affected.

“The hope is that with the flow rate coming out of the siphon pipes, that we can rapidly deplete the water and pressure and avoid a full breach,” Hopes added, referring to the approval Piney Point received from state environmental leaders to begin draining the polluted water into Tampa Bay to relieve some of the pressure on the gypsum stack.

To try to prevent the gypsum stack from collapsing, FDEP approved an emergency final order on Monday allowing site operators to begin pumping water into Tampa Bay to relieve the pressure on it.

By Friday evening, site operators doubled the rate of that discharge, which is now sending 22,000 gallons of water per minute into the bay. Even at that rate, officials say it would take almost two weeks to completely empty the leaking pond of polluted water.

Site operators have already dumped more than 30 million gallons of that water into Tampa Bay, which scientists fear could lead to a widespread algae bloom. Algae can lead to fish getting sick, or dying, and can affect humans, if they come into contact with the water or eat fish or shellfish sickened by the algae.

If the gypsum stacks collapse, engineers fear that the 800 million gallons of wastewater stored on the site would flood neighboring properties before draining into local waterways, such as Bishop Harbor, Cockroach Bay and Tampa Bay.

Right now, they’re focusing on the one breached pond holding 400 million gallons.

“An uncontrolled release of up to 400 million gallons of water is possible but has not yet occurred,” Manatee County said in a statement late Friday.

The stacks’ collapse could lead to slightly radioactive material being spewed into the surrounding area. Phosphogypsum results from producing fertilizer from phosphate. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates it because in concentrated quantities it can be radioactive.

Process water is also a chemical byproduct of phosphate mining. Because it is rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, it typically undergoes a cleaning process before it is released into local waterways. Due to the emergency, that’s not happening.

Hopes emphasized that the conditions on the site are constantly changing. A tour he took earlier this morning looked totally different from photos and videos he reviewed in the evening.

“Right now, this is a dynamic situation. It has been changing by the hours,” he explained.

Public Works Director Chad Butzow briefs local officials ahead of a 9 p.m. press conference on the situation at Piney Point on Friday, April 2. Provided 

The Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to approve a state of emergency regarding the Piney Point leak, which gives county leaders access to funds, manpower and other resources.

Friday’s breach was the latest in a series of developments that began last week when site operators discovered a leak in the 77-acre New Gypsum Stack South pond, which holds an estimated 480 million gallons of the polluted water.

As of Friday evening, discharges from the seepage breach were being stored in Piney Point’s lined stormwater system, preventing any contaminated process water from leaving the site. But that stormwater pond is used as a backup system and is quickly reaching its limit.

Speaking at the press conference, two of Manatee County’s state lawmakers promised to find a solution to Piney Point.

“It’s become a priority for the county commission, but sadly, we’re here tonight,” said state Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton. “There’s funds available for emergency work that needs to be done.”

“This quarter-century debate about what to do with this property needs to come to an end. This has to end,” state Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, added.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, FDEP officials said they remain committed to holding HRK Holdings, LLC, the company that owns Piney Point, responsible for any potential failure.

“DEP is coordinating with local stakeholders and we began water quality monitoring of Port Manatee on March 30 to protect human health and safety, and to transparently communicate with the public as this situation evolves,” the department said. “DEP is dedicated to full enforcement for any damages to our state’s resources and holding HRK accountable for this event.”

FDEP officials are monitoring the site 24/7 and will begin posting updates on water quality and the situation at Piney Point at

Herald staff writer Jessica De Leon contributed to this report.

Profile Image of Ryan Callihan
Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.

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