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As Possible Second Breach Detected At Piney Point, Buchanan Urges Plant's Closure

Manatee County Government

A drone discovered a possible second breach early Monday at the leaking Piney Point processing plant in Manatee County, as more pumps were headed to the site to prevent a catastrophic flood.

Engineers were evacuated after the possible leak was discovered, but were back on the site and are installing 20 pumps that would more than double the amount of water being pumped into Tampa Bay.

The flow going into the bay — currently 35 million gallons a day — would be increased to between 75 and 100 million gallons a day when all the pumps are operating, Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said.

"You can imagine, if we go from 35 million gallons a day to 100 million gallons a day or more pulling it out," Hopes said, "you can see how in probably 48 hours, if all those flows continue, we will be at a situation where will will no longer have that risk of that full breach, which would send that 20-foot wall of water."

That was a more optimistic assessment than Hopes gave Saturday, saying a breach at the processing plant — located near the Hillsborough County line, south of Sun City Center — was “imminent.”

READ MORE: Officials Draining Piney Point Reservoir Into Tampa Bay To Stop Massive Breach

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican, toured the area by helicopter Monday and said federal resources were committed to assisting the effort to control the 77-acre reservoir.

Among those are the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Buchanan vowed to help close the phosphate retention pond permanently.

"Everybody might be well intended, but this is something that's been going on for too long," Buchanan said during a news conference Monday. "And we're going to come together, I think, collectively, between the county and the state and the federal government, to make sure we get this resolved quickly."

"Enough's enough. So I'm angry about it, quite frankly, and I'm going to bring that intensity to make sure that we're doing what we've got to do to get this fixed."

Over the weekend, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state of emergency at the phosphate processing pond, which if it breaches could result in hundreds of millions of gallons of water flowing into the neighboring area and Tampa Bay.

On Saturday, Hopes said models indicated a full breach could produce a wall of water as high as 20 feet. By Sunday, he reduced that estimate to between one and five feet.

Officials say the next two days will be critical to stave off a possible collapse of the retention pond's earthen walls.

Nevertheless, conditions in the waters near the plant continue to deteriorate, as seen in this video shot by Rusty Chinnis, founder of Sarasota Bay Watch:

Officials have been releasing water from the pond but estimate that just under 300 million gallons remained on Monday.

The stack has been leaking since last weekend and crews have been pumping millions of gallons a day into a pipe leading to nearby Port Manatee to relieve stress on the phosphogypsum stack's earthen walls.

The reservoir contained 480 million gallons of wastewater before the discharges began. Between 2 million and 3 million gallons of water per day was also flowing out of the breach.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

 This photo shows the breach at the bottom of the retention pond, with Tampa Bay in the background.
State Rep. Will Robinson /
This photo shows the breach at the bottom of the retention pond, with Tampa Bay in the background.
Google Maps /

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.