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Phosphate mine collapse ‘imminent’ as DeSantis issues state of emergency in Florida county

By MARK YOUNG AND RYAN CALLIHAN | Miami Herald | Published: April 3, 2021

PALMETTO, Fla. — Less than a day after Manatee County issued an emergency evacuation order for nearby residents of the troubled Piney Point industrial site, public safety officials have announced new and immediate evacuations around the phosphate mine, declaring the collapse of the gypsum stack is “imminent.”

Several hours later, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a State of Emergency for the county.

“Due to a possible breach of mixed saltwater from the south reservoir at the Piney Point facility, I have declared a State of Emergency for Manatee County to ensure resources are allocated for necessary response & recovery.”

The public safety alert told residents: “Evacuate the area NOW. Collapse of Piney Point Stack is imminent. Immediate evacuation of Chapman Road to Airport Road and US 41 to O’Neill Road. Leave area IMMEDIATELY.”

Sen. Rick Scott also announced that he his monitoring the situation, “and will work to secure any federal assistance deemed necessary by the state and local officials. All Manatee County residents should remain alert and follow state and local guidance.”

Saturday’s alert comes on the heels of an evacuation order issued on Friday after a breach was observed in the wall of a leaking pond containing 800 million gallons of water containing phosphorous and nitrogen from the old phosphate mining property.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection dispatched crews to assist with an attempt to block the leak, but Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur said Saturday it doesn’t appear to be holding. Late Friday, a last-minute emergency order was issued by DEP to begin an attempt to ease pressure by releasing 22,000 gallons of the polluted water a minute into Tampa Bay.

It is alarming to environmentalists who are concerned the nutrient-rich water will create a situation ripe for red tide development.

In a video update posted to Facebook Saturday afternoon, at-large Manatee County Commissioner George Kruse said engineers predicted earlier that morning that the gypsum stacks are unstable and could collapse “at any minute.”

“I was actually out on the stack and that’s when we determined that it was no longer safe to be anywhere near Piney Point, so we all kind of raced off the stacks as fast as we could,” Kruse explained.

There are two other gypsum stacks onsite, but authorities don’t believe they will be impacted should the third ultimately collapse. With another 400 million gallons of polluted water still in the pond, a collapse could cause sudden flooding to the surrounding areas, which is the cause of the evacuation orders.

A gypsum stack is essentially a large pile of mining waste that have large lagoons on top containing millions of gallons of wastewater contaminated with heavy metals.

The Manatee County jail is in the vicinity but there are no plans to evacuate at this time, according to Randy Warren, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

“Inmates will be moved to the upper level if necessary,” Warren said. “Sandbags were put in place around all entrances [Friday].”

On Saturday, the Florida Highway Patrol also announced the road closures from U.S. 41 to 113th Street East in Manatee County, as well as College Avenue in Hillsborough County.

A statement from Manatee County Board of Commissioners Chair Vanessa Baugh stated, “Our first concern is to protect the people who live and do business in the area. People within a half-mile radius received an emergency notification to evacuate at 11:01 a.m. The public must heed that notice to avoid harm.”

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(Bradenton Herald reporter Jessica DeLeon contributed to this report.
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