Now that a mandatory evacuation order has been lifted and a major roadway is open, optimism remains high that crews will be able to contain a leak at the Piney Point processing plant in Manatee County.
At a press conference Tuesday, officials said more than two dozen pumps are pumping out around 100 million gallons of wastewater each day — much higher than earlier levels.
While there still is a leak, the amount of water escaping is down as well.
During an update Tuesday afternoon, Manatee County Public Safety Director Jake Saur said crews from agencies including the Florid Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Department of Emergency Management will be on the site “for the foreseeable future” in an effort to stem the leak.
According to a press release, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also reports a diminished risk of an uncontrolled breach from the phosphogypsum stacks at the plant.
Acting County Administrator Scott Hopes says it appears they've been able to bring the situation under control.
“I think everybody should be rest assured that this is very much under control,” Hopes said Tuesday. “Now, the risk has been lessened to the point that people will be able to return to their homes, well water, drinking water is safe, the environment is being protected as much as possible.”
Hopes updated commissioners Tuesday about efforts to use tanker trucks, barges, additional storage and reverse osmosis to make sure the impact to the bay were held to a minimum.
Some of the most contaminated water, which is leaking out of the bottom of the reservoir thorough a breach in the earthen dam, is being diverted into a 35-million-gallon lined pond that is on site.
Water is being pumped into that pond at a rate of about 70,000 gallons per day, but it is capable of handling much more, Hopes said.
According to a Tuesday afternoon update from the DEP:
- Around 303 million gallons remain in the reservoir. More than 35 million gallons per day are being removed through pumps, vacuum trucks and other water management activities.
- Controlled discharges to Port Manatee are ongoing to reduce the volume in order to lessen the pressure and stabilize the system. To date, approximately 165 million gallons have been discharged to the port.
- There is one area of concentrated seepage from the east wall.
U.S. 41, and a number of other roads in the area that had been closed, have been reopened, and residents near the processing plant can return to their homes.
“We're now ending our fifth day since learning of a breach at the site and I'm in awe over the state federal and local cooperation to ensure the safety for our residents,” Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh said during a meeting Tuesday. “I am so pleased that the interruption of life or to life as usual in north Manatee is minimal and that our residents and business owners can return home safely (Tuesday).”
Baugh said the commission voted Tuesday to pump the remaining water from the phosphogypsum stacks into a deep injection well on nearby county-owned land.
A submersible vehicle also will be sent in Wednesday to work on patching the leak.
"The residents and business owners of north Manatee can rest assured that the water atop those stacks will be treated before it goes into the well and then kept to ensure no other water enters that well,” Baugh said.
There are still concerns, though. Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials estimate 165 million gallons of wastewater have already been released into a channel at Port Manatee on Tampa Bay.
Water samples are being taken continuously, to measure the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.
"This is a response that spans across all levels of government. We are committed to ensuring this is the last chapter of the Piney Point story and holding (landowner) HRK accountable," Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said. "Thanks to the dedicated work of statewide responders, today's announcement to lift evacuation orders in the surrounding area is a benchmark of the progress being made around the clock."
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried took an aerial tour of the plant Tuesday and suggested more oversight and accountability could have prevented the ongoing issues at the plant.
“Florida is one of the most amazing states in the nation with some of the best natural resources in the world,” Fried said. “And if we are destroying our environment and not doing anything to protect it, we are destroying the future of our state.”
This is a developing story. Stay with WUSF for updates.