By CHRIS O’MEARA and ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON, Associated Press
PALMETTO, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Sunday that crews are working to prevent the collapse of a large wastewater pond in the Tampa Bay area while evacuating the area to avoid a “catastrophic flood.”
Manatee County officials say the latest models show that a breach at the old phosphate plant reservoir has the potential to gush out 340 million gallons of water in a matter of minutes, risking a 20-foot-high (about 6.1-meter-high) wall of water.
“What we are looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis said at a press conference after flying over the old Piney Point phosphate mine.
Authorities say 316 homes have been evacuated and some families were placed in local hotels. A local jail in the area is not being evacuated but they are moving people and staff to the second story and putting sandbags on the ground floor.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the water in the pond is primarily salt water mixed with wastewater and storm water. It has elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and is acidic, but not expected to be toxic, the agency says.
Manatee County officials have been discharging water when the pond began leaking in March. On Friday, a significant leak that was detected escalated the response and prompted the first evacuations and a declaration of a state of emergency on Saturday. A portion of the containment wall in the reservoir shifted, meaning a collapse could occur at any time.
Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said Sunday they will be doubling the amount of water being pumped out of the pond. Hope said he could not rule out that a full breach, which could also destabilize the walls of the other ponds at the Piney Point site.
The Florida DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said another pond has higher levels of metals.
“The radiologicals are still below surface water discharge standards. So, again this is not water we want to see leaving the site,” he said.
The ponds sit in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct from manufacturing fertilizer. State authorities say the water in the breached pond is not radioactive.
Gomez Licon reported from Miami.
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