MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — A day after ramping up the evacuation order to include over 300 residences, Manatee County Public Safety officials assured residents the controlled wastewater release at Piney Point is working, however, they are “not out of the critical area yet.”
Below are the latest reactions from several Florida government officials as well as the up-to-date information regarding the situation at Piney Point.
Over 300 jail inmates being moved
Manatee County Jail public information officer Randy Warren confirmed to 8 On Your Side that 345 inmates will be moved to “an undisclosed secure location in order to free up bed space for the remaining 721 inmates on the upper level of the Manatee Jail” as county officials continue to monitor the situation at Piney Point.
Specific details on the transfer will not be released due to security reasons.
“Sheriff Rick Wells and staff are still in constant communication with officials on the situation. We aren’t expecting more than a foot of water on jail property, in the worst-case scenario,” Warren said.
‘No news is good news’
“No news is good news,” Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said during Sunday’s 2 p.m. Piney Point update.
Baugh went on to address “rumors and misinformation” she’s seen online and throughout the community about drinking water.
“Manatee County utility customers can rest assured their drinking water is completely safe to drink,” she said. “The floodwater cannot enter the water supply.”
Baugh said those with wells in the evacuation zone need not worry either, as long as the leak continues to flow safely. If an uncontrolled breach does occur, however, alerts will be sent out to residents who live on well water advising them what precautions to take.
County Administrator Scott Hopes said his team is “much more comfortable today than we were yesterday.”
“Looking at the volume of water that has been removed and the somewhat stability of the current breach, I think the team is much more comfortable today than we were yesterday,” he said. “With the additional pumps tomorrow, I believe we’re going to be in an even better position. We are not out of the critical area yet.”
DeSantis holds Easter press conference
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed the Piney Point breach at the Manatee County Emergency Operation Center Sunday, a day after declaring a state of emergency.
DeSantis said the controlled discharge of the reservoir is about 35 million gallons per day, all being drained into Port Manatee. About 340 million gallons remain. The governor said the National Guard will be flying more pumps in Sunday to assist with the water relocation.
In the event of a full breach, Acting County Administrator Scott Hopes told reporters it could result in the surge of a 20-feet high wall of water in less than an hour.
Regardless, Hopes said they feel “much better” than they did three days ago.
Manatee County Jail
While the Manatee County Jail is in the evacuation zone, it’s not being evacuated. Acting County Administrator Scott Hopes told reporters flood models show the jail would see just one to five feet of water in the event of a full breach.
Hopes said all inmates and staff were moved to the second floor of the jail, which is over 10 feet above ground. Sand bags have also been placed on the jail doors.
“We’ve had a lot of emails regarding our jail,” Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said Sunday afternoon. “I’ve spoken to the sheriff personally … he assures me he’s fully aware of the situation and everything’s under control.”
Officials said the water is not radioactive.
Looking ahead to Sunday
Governor Ron DeSantis’ office announced late Saturday evening that he will be holding a press conference in Manatee County Sunday at 11 a.m. to provide updates regarding Piney Point.
Later on that day, Manatee County Public Safety officials expect to hold another press conference with members of the media at 2 p.m., barring any unforeseen circumstances.
Evacuation order expanded
Manatee County Public Safety officials announced at 6 p.m. Saturday that the evacuation orders surrounding Piney Point have been expanded yet again.
The original evacuation zone has expanded one-half mile west and one mile southwest to Moccasin Wallow Road.
The closure of U.S. 41 will be expanded south from Buckeye Road to Moccasin Wallow Road. Moccasin Wallow Road will be closed west of 38th Avenue East.
Officials say there are now an estimated 316 households in the evacuation area. Those affected will be receiving an emergency alert to evacuate shortly.
If residents within the evacuation zone need help, please call 311.
Between two to three million gallons per day of saltwater continues to flow out of the pond, but the chances are increasing that a large section of the pond will wash away causing an uncontrolled release that would send as much as 380 million gallons of process water rushing out.
Governor DeSantis issues state of emergency for 3 counties
Governor Ron DeSantis has issued an executive order Saturday night declaring a state of emergency in Hillsborough, Manatee, and Pinellas counties due to these counties’ proximity to the Piney Point phosphogypsum stacks.
DeSantis’ order states that the site “is an imminent hazard” that could create “an immediate and substantial danger to human health, safety, welfare and the environment.”
Manatee County officials hold press conference
During a 2 p.m. press conference with multiple Manatee County officials, County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said crews have worked overnight trying to reinforce the wall of the breached area of the gypsum stack, however, “those effects were, sadly, unsuccessful.”
Manatee County Director of Public Safety Jake Saur said around 10:30 a.m. Saturday, onsite engineers determined the situation at Piney Point was escalating, leading to an extension of the evacuation orders in place.
Now, crews are working to control the outflow at the breach of between two and three million gallons of water per day.
Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said if a full break were to happen, county officials are preparing for the “potential of about 600 million gallons (of water) within a matter of seconds and minutes leaving that retention pool and going around the surrounding area.”
Officials upgraded the area to a complete evacuation at 11 a.m. after engineers deemed the situation to be “escalating.” Evacuation notices were sent to anyone one mile to the north of the phosphogypsum stacks and a half-mile to the south.
Officials told WFLA’s Niko Clemmons late Saturday morning they believe the leaking stack could collapse at any moment — meaning the release of hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater.
The Manatee County Public Safety Department tweeted the first evacuation notice just after 6 p.m. Friday. Another emergency phone alert was sent out around 11 a.m. Saturday ordering people in the area to evacuate “NOW.”
All residents in the threatened area had evacuated by 2:30 p.m., county officials said.
Pumps are running around the clock attempting to remove as much water from the pond as quickly as possible. Every moment the pond goes without a total breach in the barrier lessens the chance of a complete uncontrolled release.
8 On Your Side’s Niko Clemmons spoke with Ron Knight, a local chemist. Knight says 15 years ago, he and another microbiologist did some studies on the water in the retention pond. But he remembers then the county faced similar problems.
“Nobody seemed to be interested at the time and have waited 20 years and nothing much has changed,” Knight said.
He also lives a few miles from the reservoir. He believes this is an issue someone should have handled a long time ago.
“I just wish they would come up with a plan and not wait another 20 years until this happens again,” Knight said. “Something needs to be done.”
Florida Highway Patrol troopers are turning vehicles around on US-41. The road will be closed at 113th Street East in Manatee County and at College Avenue in Hillsborough County until further notice.
Drivers heading south will need to detour onto College Avenue, travel east and access I-75.
Reaction from Florida officials
Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Manatee County just before 2 p.m.
“Due to a possible breach of mixed saltwater from the south reservoir at the Piney Point facility, I have declared a state of emergency for Manatee County to ensure resources are allocated for necessary response & recovery,” the governor tweeted.
Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried sent a letter to the governor’s office Saturday afternoon requesting that he “convene an emergency session of the Florida Cabinet, in person or telephonic, to discuss a plan for remediation actions with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection” in response to the imminent environmental disaster.
Senator Rick Scott’s office also addressed the situation at Piney Point, telling News Channel 8, that the Republican senator will continue “to monitor the situation closely and is available to secure any federal assistance necessary. Residents should follow state and local guidance.”
Senator Marco Rubio released the following statement concerning the Piney Point plant and current evacuations in place:
“The recent reports about HRK’s efforts to stabilize a reservoir at Piney Point in Manatee County are of grave concern, as are the possible environmental impacts to Tampa Bay. My office has been in direct communication with both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Manatee County. I stand ready to facilitate any response needed from the Federal Government.”
U.S. Representative Vern Buchanan released a statement Saturday evening calling for the federal EPA to help the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Manatee County with the imminent collapse of Piney Point.
“The federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) just assured me they are going to work to ‘get boots on the ground’ in Manatee County to help confront the contaminated water crisis at Piney Point.
I called the EPA to make sure all hands are on deck to deal with this emerging threat at the abandoned fertilizer plant. The EPA’s regional water division director assured me: ‘I understand your concern, I understand the urgency, I am very concerned myself.’
We need all the assistance we can get now that state officials have warned a breach of the holding pond containing millions of gallons of contaminated water is imminent. This has become a full-blown emergency and we need to take every step possible to protect public health and reduce the impact on homes, businesses and the environment.
I appreciate that Gov. DeSantis and Manatee County have declared a state of emergency, but we need the EPA’s assistance as well. And when the time comes, I want to make sure the owner of the property, HRK Holdings, is held accountable for failing over the years to properly protect the public.
We’ve known for years that the holding ponds of contaminated water were running out of capacity and threatening the region. But for now, we need to focus on the emergency at hand and contain the impact of more than 400 million gallons of contaminant flowing into the region.
The EPA’s financial and technical assistance could be invaluable in ensuring the containment and disposal of the contaminated water.”
Later Saturday evening, Buchanan announced via Twitter that the federal Environmental Protection Agency told him an on-scene coordinator will be leaving Atlanta and will head to Piney Point Sunday to assess the “emerging crisis.”
This is a breaking news story. Please check back for the latest updates.