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After Piney Point Disaster, Environmental Groups Call For Action

 Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper say the wastewater at Piney Point has approximately 10 times the amount of Nitrogen than raw sewage.
Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper say the wastewater at Piney Point has approximately 10 times the amount of Nitrogen than raw sewage.

The owner of a leaking reservoir at a former phosphate plant, which forced the discharge of millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay is not solely to blame for the environmental disaster, environmental groups say.

The state failed to properly oversee the property years ago, a joint statement from Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and Suncoast Waterkeeper said.

“Permit conditions were ignored and water accumulation was not addressed when state funds were available to remedy the conditions,” the statement says.

Rusty Chinnis sits on the board of both groups. He says the plant accepted wastewater from a dredging project, which brought the reservoir to dangerous levels.

"From what was a near empty cell with a 1.3-billion-gallon storage capacity to 700 million gallons of water and dredge material when they dredged the port,” he said.

The groups say that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection failed to provide the resources needed to remove the water from the stacks at the site and knew as early as 2013 about the need to do so.

Last week, FDEP authorized the discharge of millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay to alleviate pressure on the breached containment pond.

According to the environmental advocacy groups, the current discharge from the former phosphate plant far exceeds water quality standards for the Tampa Bay Estuary.

At the current rate, they say, nearly 500 tons of nitrogen are on track to be released in the course of about a week from the Piney Point facility in Manatee County. That is equivalent to approximately 100,000 bags of fertilizer, the groups say.

Though the threat of a major breach has eased and county officials rescinded an emergency evacuation order on Tuesday, millions of gallons a day continue to be released into Tampa Bay.

Chinnis says the nutrient-laden water could fuel algae blooms and endanger seagrass which is already vulnerable.

"We have lost thousands of acres of seagrass just in Sarasota Bay alone, basically losing 15 years of progress we've made,” he said. “Seagrass beds that used to be healthy and vibrant are now covered in algae."

The groups say they are calling on the state to fully fund the closure of all Piney Point stacks and to test fish within the Tampa and Sarasota Bay Estuary for heavy metals and other toxins for 2 years.

They also want enhanced water monitoring in the Tampa Bay Estuary for 5 years and a public website offering real time and historical data related to the facility.

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