Piney Point crisis: Environmental concerns grow as millions of gallons of contaminated water enter bay

Manatee County

MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – Crews are doing whatever it takes to avoid a complete collapse of the gypsum stack at Piney Point. A big part of those around-the-clock efforts involve emptying out the leaking reservoir.

As of Sunday evening, about 35 million gallons were being pumped out of the massive body of water daily. With additional pipelines coming online Monday, that volume is expected to increase to anywhere from 75 to 100 million gallons daily.

Keep in mind, all of that water is ending up in Tampa Bay.

Pete Turner spends a lot of his time in the waters in northern Manatee County. As a kite surfer, he can’t help but think about what hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated, process water means for the future of the region and the state as a whole.

“Every minute that we are not doing anything, then we are just continuing to create a larger problem for ourselves. I’m just concerned about whether it is going to be safe to get in the water. I’m just thinking about what the next couple of months are going to look like,” said Turner.

The unknown is frightening for local stakeholders.

Ed Chiles owns a group of waterfront restaurants in Manatee County. He’s spent several years working to protect water quality in and around the state.

“We are facing a tipping point here. We don’t know what the results and the ramifications are. All we are left to do is to sit here and pray that the solution to pollution is dilution,” said Chiles.

The situation at Piney Point brings up a mix of emotions for the restauranteur.

“We knew that this was a ticking time bomb and there were people that had been trying to get this situation dealt with for a long time and so here we are and this is what happens through inaction and kicking the can down the road,” said Chiles. “We all know that we have water quality issues. We are hearing about them every day. We deal with them too often now. Red tide, harmful algal blooms and not just here, everywhere and all of our coastal waters.”

Local leaders expressed concern about algae blooms and marine life Monday. Congressman Vern Buchanan took a helicopter tour of the area surrounding Piney Point and said the water, to him, looked contaminated.

“I want to be hopeful and optimistic, but just the fact that we are running water into Tampa Bay is not a great thing and not a great place to be at,” Rep. Buchanan said. “The reality of it is, it seems like it is the right thing to do right now, but I am going to be continually monitoring this and do everything I can again as a resource to work with the county and the state to fix this and fix it as quickly as we can that makes good sense.”

A long spell of red tide in the 1990s almost put Chiles out of business. He has been keeping a close eye on low levels of red tide present in south Sarasota County.

“If that moves up here…this and all the nutrients that are coming in are going to be like pouring gas on the fire and that scares me to death,” said Chiles.

The local restaurant group owner hopes the crisis at Piney Point serves as a call to action.

“I think our officials are getting lit up right now and I think that this is an opportunity for all of us to say, ‘we are not going to do it this way anymore. We are going to take action even if it costs us more money.’ What is some more money versus losing what we are facing to lose right now,” said Chiles.

Officials with the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection are closely monitoring water levels in the area surrounding Piney Point.

“Our focus is on nutrients in this water. So the main issues that we are focused on our nitrogen and phosphorus,” Noah Valenstein with FDEP said. “We have our monitoring teams out who were out before the event to make sure we had baseline sample throughout the area and are partnering with our county environmental partners as well as estuary program to make sure that we can measure any impact from nutrient on our water bodies and hold the company accountable for this event.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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