MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – As the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack leak continues to present challenges to environmental and community safety in Manatee County, state officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection say the water is meeting most quality standards, and is not radioactive.
DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein released a statement on April 3, reading, in part:
“We are completing rigorous water quality sampling daily to support any future enforcement action. While this water meets most water quality standards for marine waters, there are elevated levels of nutrients and the water is acidic. However, the water is not radioactive.”
At a 12:30 p.m. news conference on Monday, Manatee County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes addressed concerns about breaches on the southern pool of the stack.
“The only pool that’s at risk is that southernmost pool where we have identified breaches where we do have some uncontrolled release of water, but that water is flowing the pathway that had been predicted and we were able to maintain that course,” said Hopes.
In the latest update from the online update site about the Piney Point leak, the FLDEP says department staff went out to collect samples for the latest water quality information, including radiologicals.
All water quality information concludes that this water is NOT radioactive.Key status update published on April 5.
The update says when the results of the water quality test are available, they’ll be published in the same site location.
So, what’s in the Piney Point water?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency page on fertilizer production, called Radtown, says that phosphogypsum stacks, the preferred storage method for the waste from mining phosphate rock, contains “naturally-occurring uranium, thorium and radium.” Radon, a gas produced as radium decays, is released.
The stacks that are made to store the waste are “covered in water” but as the phosphogypsum sits on the stack, it dries out and forms a crust. Radon is also released from the stack. According to the EPA, as the crust forms on top of the stack, it reduces how much radon is released.
Still, some of the water from the stack, which contains radium, can leak from the bottom of the stack and pollute groundwater.
When the water does makes its way into the local environment, the acidic quality of the water can harm both saltwater and freshwater fish, according to the FIPR, the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute, a legislatively-created university research institute within Florida Polytechnic University.
Elected officials respond to ongoing leak after reviewing Piney Point site
Last week, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan called for the EPA to join efforts to handle the leak, as well as come up with a more permanent solution to the ongoing environmental risks associated with the plant. Buchanan took a helicopter flyover of the Piney Point plant location on Monday, April 5.
His key takeaway was that the water going into Tampa Bay did not look safe.
“It looked pretty contaminated to me,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan after his helicopter tour of the wastewater breach. Discussing the drainage operation, Buchanan said it “sickens” him to see the water going into Tampa Bay.
“Just the fact that we’re running the water into Tampa Bay is not where we want to be at, but at this point it seems like the right thing to do,” said Buchanan. He remains concerned about the potential for another breach on the north side of the stack.
While visiting Tampa to show support for small businesses in Florida, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio touched on COVID-19 relief and answered questions on the ongoing Piney Point leak in Manatee County.
“This one site in particular has been a ticking time bomb,” Rubio said.
The senator said that he’d spoken with the Manatee County sheriff earlier in the day and that it looked like the worst had been avoided, but that there would still be some negative implications from the ongoing releases. Still, Rubio said the responsibility fell to the state to solve the problem, rather than turn to the federal government for more oversight.
Rubio said that “everyone knew” the plant was problematic, and it had changed hands several times. He said the moment of crisis that happened was going to be reached.
“This is a site that’s four decades in the making in terms of the situation it’s now in, it was a known risk factor for a long time,” Rubio said. “There’s not been a lot of clarity about what to do about it in the long-term, a long-term solution available for it. So I don’t think it took anyone by surprise.”
As it stands, state and county officials, with federal assistance, continue to drain the water and monitor the situation, even as infrared drone scans spotted another area of weakness in the northern part of the eastern stack wall.