Nearly ‘catastrophic’ sewage leak at Piney Point could irreparably harm nearby marine life, experts say


Florida officials rushed over the past week after a sewage pond at the former Piney Point phosphate mining facility caused a major leak – a situation officials described as ” potential “disaster. While the authorities succeeded in draining the reservoir sufficiently so that a “tsunami“Sewage has not flooded the area, experts told CBS News that the threat to the environment remains.

Residents who immediately live in the area are physically safe for now, state officials said, but millions of gallons of water have flowed into the local soil and waterways, and millions of others were pumped directly into Port Manatee, an entrance to Tampa Bay, Florida. west coast, to prevent the reservoir from collapsing.

From March 26 to April 9, about 237 million gallons of water leaked or were intentionally dumped from the reservoir, the state’s environment department said. Authorities stopped dumping water into the port on Friday, according to the state’s water quality dashboard.

The water was determined to have no harmful levels of radioactive material, and officials said the water in the reservoir meets seawater quality standards “with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammoniacal nitrogen “.

When asked by CBS News, the state’s environmental department did not specify what the water quality standards are for the facility and marine waters. “It’s slightly acidic, but not at a level that should be of concern,” the department said in a statement. “Field operations teams are currently deploying on-site water nutrient reduction and removal treatments to treat the discharges needed in the future. This will significantly reduce the nutrient load in Port Manatee and help minimize impacts on water quality. “

Dr Henry Briceño, a water quality professor and researcher at Florida International University, who holds several degrees in geological engineering, told CBS News that despite what officials say, the water does not meet standards. water quality and those responsible should not “try to play with people.”

“The nutrient concentrations are much higher than the receiving water body,” he said, referring to Port Manatee. “These waters do not meet normal and regular water quality criteria for Tampa Bay.”

The nutrients of most concern when it comes to wastewater – which is a combination of salt water from a local dredging project, process water, and storm water – are nitrogen and phosphorus. While both are essential for plant life, excessive amounts can destroy ecosystems, experts say.

A joint statement released this week by environmental groups Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper estimated that the amount of nutrients entering Tampa Bay was “about 100,000 bags of fertilizer” and that wastewater “contains about ten times as much nitrogen than raw sewage “. Those numbers, the groups said, are based on recent samples and nitrogen levels can vary throughout the water column.

Water Quality Update 4 3 21 through
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Jenna Stevens, state director of Environment Florida, described the impact of this “nutrient pollution” to CBS News.

“Every body of water has a certain amount of pollution that it can take before things get really, really bad and we start seeing big water quality issues. And that amount of nutrient pollution can be really damaging, ”Stevens said. “When [officials] were like, ‘Oh, well, it’s not more acidic than a cup of coffee,’ well, it still doesn’t meet water quality standards for marine waters. It’s too acidic for our waterways and it’s too loaded with these pollutants. ”

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which tracks water data near Piney Point, says on its database that they are more concerned with the increase in total nitrogen and ammonia in coastal waters due to the drastic impact these nutrients can have on ecosystem health. Nitrogen concentrations above 5 to 10 milligrams per liter can be problematic, depending on the program, and reports show that water near Piney Point has been recorded with significantly higher nitrogen levels than that.

On March 31, five days after the company that owns Piney Point submitted a report to the state that water was seeping into the gypsum stack that holds water, a sample of water from Piney Creek Point, in which the sewage initially leaked, recorded 191.5 milligrams. per liter of nitrogen, more than 19 times the limit indicated. Another nearby point recorded 214.4 milligrams per liter, which is more than 21 times higher, according to the database.

According to environmental officials, the total nitrogen concentration in seawater should be limited to 0.74 milligrams per liter.

A week later, on April 7, officials said, “high levels of phosphorus“were detected in Port Manatee, where sewage from the Piney Point Reservoir was being dumped. A water sample from April 5 detected 2.1 milligrams per liter of orthophosphate, a form of phosphorus. This level is 21 times. higher than the marine grade standard for phosphorus of 0.10 milligrams per liter Other samples taken at the port on that date also showed levels at least double the standard threshold.

Stevens of Environment Florida worries what this spill, or any other spill, could do to Tampa Bay, which for decades has been the subject of restoration and protection after being catastrophically polluted in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, the locals, state and federal government went to great lengths to revitalize the region.

Tampa Bay History
A history of protection and restoration efforts in Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay Estuary Program

A priority of these efforts was to maintain appropriate nitrogen levels. Excessive amounts of the nutrient leads to more algae, which reduces the amount of light able to enter the water. Algae blooms, Briceño explained, create a devastating cascading effect for marine life, as algae alter oxygen levels as they expand, and even as they die and rot.

“It’s a self-sustaining and continuous mechanism,” Briceño said, adding that he “won’t be surprised” if that happens.

Environmental officials told CBS News on Saturday that there were “visual observations” of an increase in algae in the water.

“Samples of algae blooms were collected with great caution and are currently being processed,” they said.

And if it does, it will also have a negative impact on seagrass beds, a plant vital to the Tampa Bay ecosystem. Seagrass beds, in addition to being a vital source of food and habitat for manatees and other marine life, are essential for improving overall water quality.

It took decades and millions of dollars to restore seagrass beds, and all it takes, Stevens said, is some extra acidity to wash it all out.

“A lot of our way of life here in Florida is about our time on the water… that’s where we go out and enjoy life,” Stevens said. “Scientists and advocates have been saying for decades that this is a problem, and polluters have not been held accountable. And now Floridians must pay the price for their mess.”

And if the seagrass beds disappear, it could endanger the Florida manatees, which are a threatened species who are in the midst of an unexpected mortality event, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Over 600 manatees were found dead between January 1 and April 2. Between 2016 and 2020, the population had an average of 203 deaths per year.

Experts believe that manatees’ access to food is a contributing factor, but not the only reason, for sudden death.

“Obviously more studies need to be done to fully determine what the causes of all these deaths are,” Stevens said, “but what we are seeing leads us to believe that these manatees are running low on food, that they are potentially running out of food. from starving to death due to the loss of seagrass around the state.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has made similar claims, just that food loss is a “contributing factor” to the death of manatees.

“Algae, like many plants, need sunlight to grow,” the commission said on its website. “Since 2011, the persistence of algal blooms has resulted in reduced water clarity and light penetration, resulting in a dramatic reduction in seagrass beds. Seagrasses are the main food of manatees. in these systems. ”

The Florida Senate voted to allocate $ 3 million for fiscal year 2021-2022 to help clean up the wastewater at Piney Point. But the funds, if included in the final budget, wouldn’t be available until July 1, a month after the hurricane season officially begins.

Tropical storms and hurricanes pose a greater risk to local and environmental safety around Piney Point, as severe storms could damage overflows of ponds and infrastructure. These storms have become more frequent and intense over the years, and this year the National Hurricane Center start regularly monitor the tropical climate.

Todd Crowl, director of the Institute of Environment at Florida International University, said that even though the sewage discharge in Port Manatee is poor, ecosystems can normally recover until they are continually infiltrated. .

“But if you hit him once and then hit him again in a fairly short period of time,” he said, “he never has time to fully recover.”

Tampa Bay, he said, is “getting dangerously close” to such a problem, and a hurricane hitting before the system can recover could create more permanent damage.

It could take months to see the full effects of the sewage discharge, but Briceño is concerned the ramifications may affect the already fragile waters of South Florida.

“That’s what I’m afraid we may have in these ecosystems… that we move beyond these tipping points,” he said. “And then we don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s not going to be good for sure.”

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