Governor Ron DeSantis and members of the Florida Department of Emergency Management on Sunday toured a leaking phosphate processing pond in Manatee County where the threat of a larger breach could send hundreds of millions of gallons of water into the neighboring area and Tampa Bay.
DeSantis issued a state of emergency on Saturday and sent in the National Guard to provide pumps in an attempt to drain the reservoir before the hole in the earthen dam becomes larger.
Authorities had stated on Saturday that such a breach was imminent and could send a wall of water into the surrounding area, which is south of Sun City near the Hillsborough County line.
On Sunday, DeSantis said he couldn’t speculate on the likelihood of that taking place.
“If we didn’t think that was a possibility we wouldn’t have marshalled the assets that we’re doing,” DeSantis said. “We’re preparing for that. Obviously we hope that that doesn’t happen.”
Part of U.S. 41 in Manatee and Hillsborough counties was closed and homes and businesses in the area were evacuated on Friday and Saturday after attempts to plug a hole in the walls of the 79-acre reservoir failed.
Officials have been releasing water from the pond but estimate that just under 300 million gallons remained on Sunday.
“If we should have a full breach within minutes … the models for less than an hour are as high as a 20 foot wall of water," said Scott Hopes, county administrator for Manatee County.
However, Hopes said models on Sunday showed the wall of water would likely be between one and five feet.
Officials issued an emergency evacuation notification at 11 a.m. Saturday for people within a mile to the north of the reservoir and a half mile to the south. The order was expanded around 6 p.m. Saturday to include a half mile west and to Moccasin Wallow Road on the southwest. There are 316 homes in the evacuation area.
U.S. 41 is closed at Moccasin Wallow Road in Manatee and at College Avenue in Hillsborough County.
Manatee County officials also declared a state of emergency to ensure resources are allocated for the response and recovery.
The stack has been leaking since last weekend and crews have been pumping millions of gallons a day into a pipe leading to nearby Port Manatee to relieve stress on the
phosphogypsum stack's earthen walls.
The reservoir contained 480 million gallons of wastewater before the discharges began. Between 2 million and 3 million gallons of water per day was also flowing out of the breach.
Controlled discharges began on Tuesday and are now removing about 33 million gallons a day from the reservoir, officials said.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management deployed 20 additional pumps to the area that can each remove 23,500 gallons per minute.
"We're hoping that we can just continue to get the water out in an efficient way and prevent a catastrophic event," DeSantis said. "But we have to prepare that this could be something where you see further degradation."
The additional pumps will come online sometime Monday morning and should double the amount of water that can be taken out.
“The controlled release is working," Hopes said. "The breach release is traveling in the direction that we anticipated and planned for. We believe that probably by Tuesday we will be in a much better position and the risk level will have decreased significantly.”
The situation looked much more dire on Saturday with officials calling a massive breach "imminent."
That came after they saw an increase in the flow from the breach area around 3 a.m. Saturday. The flow has since seemed to plateau, Hopes said.
“Looking at the volume of water that has been removed and the somewhat stability of the current breach, I think the team is much more comfortable today than we were yesterday," he said. "And with the additional pumps tomorrow I believe we are going to be in an even better position. We are not out of the critical area yet."
Most of the water is being discharged into Port Manatee, with small amounts going into Piney Creek and then Cockroach Bay.
The pond is full mostly of dredged material used to deepen channels at nearby Port Manatee, as well as seawater. The water contains nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen, which could contribute to algae blooms in Tampa Bay.
There is fear two other holding ponds could be affected if the pond with the breach collapses. Hopes said the other two contain about 400 million gallons of phosphate process wastewater. Unlike the other pond, these two are believed to contain heavy metals and slightly radioactive gypsum, which could significantly impact the ecology of the surrounding area.
The radioactive material in the other ponds is below surface water discharge standards, so that element is not a grave concern, said Department of Environmental Protection secretary Noah Valenstein.
"So, again, this is not water we want to see leaving the site," Valenstein said.
HRK Holdings has owned the site since Mulberry Phosphates declared bankruptcy in 2001. There has been talk about covering the gypstack for years, but nothing was ever done. Gov. DeSantis says it's about time to fix the problem for good.
"Although our foremost concern is ensuring the safety of the community, our administration is dedicated to full enforcement of any damages to our state's resources and holding the company, HRK accountable for this event," DeSantis said. "This is not acceptable. This is not something we will allow to persist."
Hopes, the Manatee County administrator, agreed.
"I think all agencies and entities now are committed to a permanent resolution of this," Hopes said during the news conference. "This could have been resolved over two decades ago."
A permanent resolution would involve draining all three of the ponds at the site, filling them and capping them so they would no longer hold water, Hopes said.