(CNN) — Officials say drones may have detected a second breach in a Florida wastewater reservoir containment wall that could collapse — creating what the governor has called a “real catastrophic flood situation.”
“At approximately 2 a.m., an infrared drone identified a signature that could indicate a second breach” in the Piney Point wastewater pond, Manatee County Public Safety Director Jake Saur said Monday at a news conference.
“Engineers from the Department of Environmental Protection are back out at the site now and they’re reassessing that,” Saur added.
The leak in the containment wall was discovered about a week ago. Residents in the area, about 20 miles south of Tampa, were evacuated as officials warned the containment wall could collapse at any time.
The Manatee County Public Safety Department declared a state of emergency Saturday. Besides the flooding danger, the leak could also cause a collapse of phosphogypsum stacks, radioactive waste that is created during fertilizer production and phosphate rock mining.
Manatee County took the precaution of transporting 267 inmates Sunday night to a correctional facility in nearby Polk County, said Randy Warren, the spokesperson for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
Saur noted that the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have deployed teams to the location to provide assistance.
Pumping efforts increased
At the news conference Monday, officials said they expect to ramp up their efforts to pump the water as the day goes on.
“By the end of the day today, when the additional pumps come online, we will more than double the volume of water that we’re pulling out of that retention pool,” acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said.
“We should be looking at anywhere from 75 to 100 million gallons a day by the end of the day.”
US Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican whose district includes Manatee County, said Monday the leak could have a significant environmental impact on the area in terms of algae blooms.
“I’ve been following red tide for 20 years — you know, that can have a big impact on all of Florida,” he said. “It gets back to public safety and marine life, and we see these manatees dying, and what it does to small businesses and restaurants and everything else.”
Buchanan said he wants the problem “fixed permanently, because this is something that’s been going on for a long time.”
State environmental officials said in a statement Saturday that “while this water meets most water quality standards for marine waters, there are elevated levels of nutrients and the water is acidic.”
Governor warns of a ‘catastrophic flood situation’
After an aerial tour Sunday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said response teams are trying to prevent a “real catastrophic flood situation” in the Piney Point reservoir area.
The governor assured the public that the water being discharged to nearby Port Manatee, on the Gulf Coast, is not radioactive.
“What we’re looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis said.
“The goal is to ensure the integrity of the stack system as quickly as possible in order to minimize impacts to local residents and to prevent an uncontrolled discharge.”
County leader says the water is safe to drink
Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh assured Manatee County utility customers “their drinking water is completely safe to drink.”
“The water distribution system is a closed system without any way for floodwater to enter,” Baugh said. “There is also no threat to our primary source of drinking water, Lake Manatee.”
DeSantis said Manatee County public safety officials sent out evacuation notices to residents and businesses in the surrounding area and assisted with the evacuation of 316 homes that were in the evacuation zone near Piney Point.
Onsite engineers said a controlled release was necessary to prevent a “catastrophic failure,” according to the governor. Controlled discharges that began March 30 and continued Sunday are averaging about 35 million gallons per day, he added.
The Florida National Guard is dropping off additional pumps, which “will be fed into surrounding waterways” to help quickly decrease the water levels in the reservoir, DeSantis said.
Hopes, the county administrator, asked residents to listen to emergency management.
“If we should have a full breach, within minutes, we’re down to about 340 million gallons that could reach in totality, in a period of minutes, and the models for less than an hour are as high (as) a 20-foot wall of water,” Hopes said. “So if you are in an evacuation area, and you have not heeded that, you need to think twice and follow the orders.”
Hopes also said while they are not out of the critical area yet, they believe they will be in “a much better position, and the risk level will have decreased significantly,” by Tuesday.
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