Workers have been rushing to pump gallons of wastewater from the pond near the old phosphate mine reservoir at Piney Point to reduce the chances of a full-fledged breach.
“What we’re looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” Governor Ron DeSantis said at news conference on Sunday.
Efforts have been made to control the water leak since March. But authorities jumped to greater action and escalated the threat level on Friday when a “significant leak” was detected and the governor declared a state of emergency for three counties.
Manatee County officials have begun the evacuation process of about 345 inmates from a local jail. Plans to simply move all inmates to the second floor were revised at the last minute on Sunday and the inmates were instead sent to an undisclosed location, reported the Tampa Bay Times. The jail is about a mile away from the 77-acre pond.
The remaining 721 inmates along with staff members and medical equipment were shifted to an upper storey floor and sandbags were placed at every entrance as the jail authorities scrambled to take emergency measures.
An alarming text message to “Evacuate NOW” was sent to residents of Tampa Bay.
Officials in Manatee County warned nearly 400,00 people in the area that up to 340m gallons would sweep the area with “a 20ft wall of water” if they would not be able to repair the breach at the Piney Point reservoir in the Tampa Bay area, north of Bradenton.
Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur said: "A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally... signifying that structural collapse could occur at any time."
The evacuation order was extended to at least 316 homes, including to houses half a mile west and one mile southwest of the site, from earlier orders to people only one mile north of the affected area.
Governor DeSantis, who took stock of the situation by touring in a helicopter, said the wastewater is a mix of saltwater, fresh water, wastewater and fertiliser runoff. He clarified that it is not radioactive after concerns were raised among residents.
The leak has been reported in a stack of phosphogypsum, a radioactive waste product left after the manufacture of fertiliser. It contains naturally occurring radium and uranium, but in tiny amounts.
The reservoir does contain residual levels of phosphorus and nitrogen from the former phosphate plant, however.
Manatee County administrator Scott Hopes said they would be pumping the water out of the pond at a redoubled rate. He said they would be in a "much better position" by Tuesday if the collapse can be delayed until then.
Currently, the water is being pumped out at a rate of 33 million gallons a day in assistance with the Florida National Guard, said Mr DeSantis.
The breach could be an “environmental catastrophe” said Nikki Fried, the Florida agriculture commissioner, posing risks to wildlife and vegetation from toxic red tide algae blooms.
The ground drinking water for the locals remains unaffected, with no threat to the area’s primary water source Lake Manatee.
Mr Hopes said the incident could have been resolved over two decades ago. "What I’ve seen in the past four days from the governor’s office is that all agencies and entities are now committed to a permanent resolution,” he added.
But the governor blamed HRK Holdings, the company that owns the site, saying they are accountable for the leak.
Jeff Barath, a representative for HRK Holdings, said he is sorry over the incident at a briefing of Manatee County Commissioners. He said they noticed the "increased conductivities within the site’s seepage collection system" on 22 March.
Helicopters have been deployed to assist the work and sections of US Highway 41 near the pond have also been closed off.
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