USF researchers tracking impact of Piney Point leak

Manatee County

MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – Researchers with the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science is using computer models, originally developed to track red tide and ocean currents, to track the wastewater discharge at Piney Point.

They started tracking the pollutant plume back on March 30. The latest forecast runs through this Saturday and shows low levels of nutrients reaching as far north as downtown St. Petersburg. The orange and yellow colors indicate higher concentrations of nutrients.

“It is basically showing the history of that effluent, where it is going, where it will go, and how it will dissipate over the coming weeks and maybe even months,” said Professor of Physical Oceanography Dr. Bob Weisberg.

In all officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimate 215 million gallons of contaminated water made it out of the once leaking Piney Point gypstack, through Port Manatee, and into Tampa Bay.

Data gathered through the tracking system will help field crews pinpoint where they need to pull samples.

“Where we see highest concentration, we expect to see the largest impact and so it is a nice tool to help others in the field determine where they want to sample and what they want to sample. Doing so, we can see how the impact evolve over both time and space,” said Dr. Weisberg.

Researchers aren’t sure how long it will take for the nutrients to be flushed from the bay for good as ocean circulation varies depending on winds, tides, and currents.

“The flushing of the bay tends to be slow and typically the wind will blow in a given direction for a couple of days and we have fronts passing by. This time of year, the frontal passage tends to decrease, so you really need a steady long-term event to more quickly flush the system out. This time of year we really don’t get those big events, so it will be with us for a while,” Dr. Weisberg said.

The USF professor took his sailboat out on the bay last week to get a closer, in-person look at the impacts.

“We see very obvious visible impacts of plant growth and so if you go out there on a boat, you will see water that looks rather brown relative to the surrounding water that is normally green,” said the professor.

USF’s efforts are helping officials in the region and state better understand the impacts at Piney Point.

“We are starting to put together the pieces of the story,” said Tom Frazer, dean of the USF College of Marine Science, “and are grateful for all of the efforts on the part of our state and academic partners in this all-hands-on-deck effort.”

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