TAMPA (WFLA) – Calling the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack a “ticking time bomb,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told 8 On Your Side he knows stopping the worst-case scenario of a collapse comes at the cost of harming Tampa Bay.

“You’re putting nutrients, contaminated water in a sensitive wildlife area,” Sen. Rubio said. “We could see some bad stuff algae blooms, fish kills. It’s not good. It’s just not the catastrophic outcome.”

Nearly half of the nation’s phosphogypsum stacks that hold the waste product from manufacturing fertilizer are located in Florida.

Since the emergency declaration and evacuation order around the site in Manatee County, 8 On Your Side has heard from environmental groups that are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide greater oversight for Florida’s 24 other gyp stacks.

“Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production,” Jaclyn Lopez, the Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

Sen. Rubio was non-committal when asked whether more federal resources should be brought in to inspect the other gyp stacks in the state.  

“We’re gonna wait for this crisis to pass in the short term and then we’re going to learn more about whether there’s a role for the federal government to play moving forward,” Sen. Rubio said.

As state lawmakers finalize next year’s budget, they are set to consider funding up to $200 million for the complete cleanup and closure of the former Piney Point phosphate mine.

The appropriation is sponsored by State Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, whose district includes Manatee County.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said he’s likely to spend federal pandemic relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan on a resolution to the decades old problem at Piney Point.

“I don’t think the issue is the state,” Sen. Rubio said. “The issue is where do you put it, where do you send it, what do you do with it. There isn’t a lot of places welcoming the receipt of contaminated material.”

8 On Your Side caught up with Florida’s senior U.S. senator in Tampa for the first time since the start of coronavirus pandemic during his visit to Fresco Foods, Inc.

“At some point you have to balance a combination of factors that includes people’s needs to raise and feed their family and keep their business afloat,” Sen. Rubio said. “I think Florida has done it as well as anybody in the country, certainly a state this size.”

Throughout the pandemic, Fresco Foods president and founder Rob Povolny said his company kept paying all of its 120 employees thanks to a loan from the Payroll Protection Program.

“Our business definitely spiked as the pandemic hit,” Povolny told 8 On Your Side. “Then it did soften up as people were staying home more often and not shopping at grocery stores as often, so the PPP really came in handy for us.”

Povolny said his small business did not miss a week of production and now there are plans to expand selling their prepackaged healthy meals in stores up and down the east coast.

According to Rubio’s office, more than 430,000 small businesses in Florida received forgivable PPP loans.

“Millions of jobs that were saved as a result of it,” he said. “It’s a program that will continue to the end of May and one that I think has been one of the most important achievements of all of the things we’ve done on COVID.”

Sen. Rubio said another major American achievement has been the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

“It was American government investment that ramped up the private sector to create not one, but now three vaccines that are available,” he said. “It’s American capacity that made it available. It’s the Trump administration that began the rollout of it. It’s the Biden administration that’s taken it to the next level.”