After a major leak at a large pond at the old Piney Point phosphate mine threatened to burst a facility that stores water contaminated with hazardous materials, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proclaimed a state of emergency on Saturday. Throughout the day the volume had decreased to less than 300 million.
Florida officials are urging residents in the surrounding areas of a wastewater storage pond to heed evacuation orders ahead of a potential overflow of polluted water.
Authorities have closed off portions of the U.S. Highway 41 and ordered evacuations of 316 homes. Some families were placed in local hotels.
"Sheriff Rick Wells and staff are still in constant communication with officials on the situation".
At that rate, he said, it will take 10 to 12 days to drain the water in a controlled fashion "so at least this material stays on Piney Point grounds".
According to Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes, with new resources of the state, crews will be nearly doubling the amount of water being released from the pond and taken to Port Manatee.
According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the water in the pound is mostly saltwater mixed with stormwater and wastewater. The water is slightly acidic but not to a concerning or toxic level, officials said.
Crews have been releasing water since the pond started leaking this month.
Hopes, the county administrator, said Sunday that with new state resources, crews will be almost doubling the amount of water being pumped out of the pond and taken to Port Manatee.
Early Sunday, officials saw an increase in the water leaking out, but Hopes says it seems to have plateaued.
Jeff Barath, manager for HRK Holdings at Piney Point, held back tears while briefing Manatee County commissioners on the incident Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times reported. "We are not out of the critical area yet".
Hopes explained he could not rule out that an entire breach could disrupt the walls of other ponds located at the Piney Point site.
"We're not talking about anything with radiation or high levels of heavy metals", he said.
He specified the radiological is still lower than the surface water discharge standards. Therefore, again, the official said, this is not water they want to see leaving the site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a coordinator on the scene to work with emergency management and provide support as necessary, said EPA spokeswoman Brandi Jenkins.
HRK did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Phosphogypsum is a byproduct of fertilizer production and is considered weakly radioactive as it contains naturally occurring isotopes such as radon. Hopes added that the pond is "basically salt water" but said if the pond collapses, there is a risk it could destabilize the walls of other areas in the plant that could pose much more hazardous problems.
After a large sinkhole opened up in a phosphogypsum stack pond in 2016, more than 200 million gallons of polluted wastewater from another fertilizer plant in central Florida leaked into one of the state's largest aquifers.