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Measuring Piney Point’s Impacts On Tampa Bay Will Take Time, USF Researchers Say

Data on nitrates and phosphate will be important when determining the spill’s effect on Tampa Bay.
University of South Florida
Data on nitrates and phosphate will be important when determining the spill’s effect on Tampa Bay.

Scientists will be paying close attention to water quality data as they work to determine the environmental impacts that polluted discharges from the Piney Point phosphate plant have had on Tampa Bay.

But some of the most important data about nitrates and phosphates takes time to process, researchers say.

A team of scientists from the USF College of Marine Science on Wednesday took a vessel into Tampa Bay to study the area and bring back water samples.

But they don’t expect to have some of the results for days or weeks because some chemicals take longer to process and involve more resources, said Tom Frazer, Dean of the USF College of Marine Science.

“Let's say you're analyzing something for nitrate, or phosphate or something like that. There's a set of protocols that are in place. There's lab time involved and you have to run it through the various instrumentation to get that result,” said Frazer. “So some things move faster than others.”

The team will develop forecast models that show where they expect the polluted water to go and observe any anomalies in Tampa Bay.

The scientists didn’t find any large anomalies on the surface of Tampa Bay during their first day of research, Frazer said.

“We didn't see any fish kills or things like that. But that's why you collect the samples ... so we understand what types of nutrient concentrations are on the water,” said Frazer.

The team collected samples of bacteria and water to analyze types of phytoplankton that might be present. The researchers also collected samples of sediments and fish, to see if there are any contaminants that are in the tissues of those organisms, or in the sediments themselves.

“There's a lot of concern obviously, about whether they're red tide organisms and these nutrients that are being added are potentially fueling algal blooms and red tide,” Frazer said. “So those are things that we're looking at.”

The team is trying to understand how chemicals from the discharge will be diluted and how organisms will ingest them or how they will be modified by other biogeochemical processes.

“When we look at the major contaminants in there, there are nutrients. It's not radioactive water,” said Frazer. “There will be an environmental impact, most certainly, in the sense that when you add nutrients to shallow coastal waters, they stimulate algal growth. So the question is, where's that growth going to manifest?”

There are concerns surrounding the increased nutrients and how it will produce phytoplankton. But because algal blooms generally develop in a week as opposed to hours or days, the team will have to wait to find what effect the nutrients have.

Phytoplankton are a vital part of all aquatic ecosystems, estuaries and coastal waters. They are food for other organisms and produce oxygen that is released into the atmosphere.

But when there’s too many phytoplankton, they can consume the oxygen in the water, causing fish kills. Some types of phytoplankton, like red tide, also produce toxins that get into the air.

“This can cause problems for humans that are living on the coast,” said Frazer. “So that's why those are some immediate concerns.”

The water that’s flowing into the bay from the Piney Point reservoir is a combination of old dredge water, stormwater, rainwater, and some legacy process water from the phosphate plant.

The team’s concern is nitrogen but they don’t have those results yet. So far, they’ve been able to determine that the bay has more ammonia than normal.

“As those results become available, I think we'll be in a much better position to talk more specifically about what the potential impacts might be,” Frazer said. “So I would just tell people to sit tight. Those results are coming soon.”

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Christina Loizou
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