MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — While the threat of a catastrophic uncontrolled breach at the Piney Point facility appears to have eased, the work is just getting started to monitor the impact on Tampa Bay.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said pumps, vacuum trucks and other methods are removing more than 35 million gallons a day. The controlled discharge to Port Manatee continues with around 165 million gallons so far.
“To hear something like this and to know the nitrogen level is so high it’s devastating. All of that work the past 30, 40 years we’ve put into you know restoring the bay and bring to as beautiful as it is today can all be gone in a week,” said Captain Dustin Pack, a board member of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper.
The nonprofit fights for clean and safe water, including through legal means and community action. On Tuesday, Pack and others took a boat to Port Manatee to get a first-hand look of the water and document the seagrass.
“That’s what filters everything. So if you kill seagrass with these algae blooms which we have algae blooms but this is just gonna put a steroid in it and make it that much worse,” Pack said.
Their goal was to create a baseline to compare to future monitoring efforts. The concern for some organizations is the nutrient load.
“If you went out on the boat right now you probably wouldn’t notice anything. It would just look like a typical day out on the beautiful Tampa Bay water. Sun shining, the birds are flying around but then you realize what’s actually happening underneath you is something very terrible for our environment,” said Michelle Sabin, also a board member of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper.
The Florida DEP said the water discharged is a mix of seawater, legacy process water and stormwater runoff and rainfall. While the agency said it meets water quality standards for marine waters, with exceptions for pH and total phosphorous, nitrogen and ammonia nitrogen.
“Right now the flow appears to be at a rate that it can be diluted and handled in the environment and we are very, very optimistic we have been successfully able to minimize the impact,” said Manatee County administrator Dr. Scott Hopes.
The Tampa Bay Estuary Program is working to coordinate some monitoring efforts, for water quality and other environmental impacts. It said teams plan to start documenting things like seagrass and macroalgae conditions this week.
“It’s kind of challenging right now because a lot of times it also takes time for an environmental response to be observed but our concerns continue to center around things like algae blooms,” said the program's assistant director Maya Burke.
She said they’re also carefully watching any shifts in the wind and expanding monitoring to environmentally sensitive areas north, like Cockroach Bay.
“We do not want to see any of the additional pumps that may be coming online directing water towards really environmentally sensitive areas like Bishop Harbor and Piney Point Creek so we continue to make sure the community stays vigilant to make sure these discharges while we don’t like to see them happen, are happening in the least sensitive places possible,” Burke said.
The Florida DEP said a working group is now established to look at technologies and solutions for “nutrient removal efforts for water in the containment areas” at Piney Point, and options for treating surface water at discharge points “to prevent or minimize algal blooms.”
“There’s no silver lining in this whatsoever but if there was, the limelight is here now, the spotlight is on us, the spotlight in on this discharge,” said Pack. “I feel like more people have learned what phosphate is and how you mine for it in the past week than they have in the past 10 years.”
He said Tampa Bay Waterkeeper will continue their monitoring efforts, too.