TAMPA, Fla. - The controlled release of contaminated wastewater from the retired Piney Point phosphate production plant could spell environmental catastrophe for Tampa Bay. Breaches in the walls of Piney Point’s holding pools over the past week have worsened over the past week. Now,the facility’s owners have resorted to the controlled release, spewing 22,000 gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay each minute on Saturday, trying to mitigate further damage.
The wastewater at the Piney Point facility is saturated with nitrogen and phosphate, substances known to cause algal outbreaks and kill fish and marine mammals in Tampa Bay. Additionally, the acidic wastewater could prove harmful to our seagrass beds, which are an important source of food for Florida’s beloved manatees. The large release of water is meant to prevent a complete collapse of a radioactive material called phosphogypsum. If that happened, millions more gallons of polluted water -- including the radioactive material -- would likely leach into the bay.
In response, Jenna Stevens, state director of Environment Florida, issued the following statement:
“The situation at Piney Point has been a slow-moving disaster that scientists and advocates have warned about for years. Floridians and particularly residents of the Tampa Bay region treasure our amazing ecosystem and the wildlife that inhabit it. Now, our region is preparing for devastation that was preventable, including the potential destruction of seagrass that’s recently been restored to historic levels.
“While red tide and other harmful algal outbreaks are unfortunately not new to Florida, the speed and volume of this pollution release could lead to greater damage this time. This is hardly the first environmental disaster caused by the phosphate mining industry. Yet they have continued their dangerous practices and now our environment is paying the price.
“Clearly, the companies that own and operate Piney Point must be held accountable for this damage and full clean-up costs. And, with 24 other radioactive phosphogypsum stacks across the state, we must also take immediate action to prevent further disasters like this one. Environmental officials should halt additional wastewater production at these sites until a complete safety review. Disasters like this also raise the question of whether we should mine and process phosphate to make fertilizer. As Florida has seen time and again, it makes no sense to grow our food in ways that pollute our waters.”