Florida officials have lifted an evacuation order for residents and business owners around a wastewater reservoir after they were told to flee amid fears it would burst and release a 20ft wall of water.
Manatee County public safety officials announced Tuesday afternoon that the mandatory evacuation order around the Piney Point Reservoir in the Tampa Bay area north of Bradenton had been lifted with immediate effect from 4pm local time.
Some wastewater is still leaking from the reservoir but officials said the seepage rates had fallen so it was now safe for residents to return to their homes and businesses.
More than 300 homes were evacuated near the large reservoir Saturday as Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency.
Some prisoners from a county penitentiary were also bussed to an undisclosed location, while others were moved to higher floors in the facility.
Close-up of the Piney Point Reservoir on Tuesday. Florida officials lifted an evacuation order for residents and business owners around the reservoir
Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes announced Tuesday afternoon that there is no longer a threat of catastrophic flooding and that the crisis has been largely averted.
‘This is very much under control now,’ he said in a press conference.
People and pets who had taken refuge in nearby hotels are now able to return home and businesses in the area can reopen.
Some road closures will remain in place for the time being but the major highway nearby – Highway 41 – was reopened earlier Tuesday.
The lifting of the evacuation order comes after multiple agencies including the US Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Emergency Management and Manatee County Public Safety officials met to discuss the developments at the reservoir.
Nikki Fried, the state commissioner of the Agriculture and Consumer Services Department, toured the site Tuesday and told reporters the situation appeared to have stabilized.
‘It seems like this is under control, as much as something like this could be under control,’ said Fried, a Democrat.
‘We need to take immediate action to fix this.’
Florida lawmakers have proposed spending $200 million to clean up and close the reservoir amid concerns of a similar issue in the future.
The state Senate president, Republican Wilton Simpson, said a legislative committee on Wednesday will take up an amendment to use federal money for the project.
Manatee County public safety officials announced Tuesday afternoon that the mandatory evacuation order around the Piney Point Reservoir in the Tampa Bay area north of Bradenton had been lifted with immediate effect from 4pm local time
Its sponsor is Senator Jim Boyd, a Republican from Bradenton where the Piney Point reservoir is located.
‘This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen for too long,’ Simpson said in a statement.
‘We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in five, 10 or 20 years.’
A House committee is also expected to consider a similar bill Wednesday.
Under the proposals, the money would come from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package signed into law in March by Joe Biden.
‘This is a huge step forward for our community,’ Boyd said.
Under the Florida Senate bill, once the money is approved, the Department of Environmental Protection would use competitive bidding to select a company to handle the shutdown of the site.
The precise contours of that plan are not yet clear.
Some ideas on the table include deep-well injection to send the water thousands of feet underground, but that comes with its own concerns about contamination.
The reservoir, and two others nearby, sit in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct from manufacturing fertilizer from an old phosphate plant that is no longer in operation.
A satellite image on April 5 shows a breach in the wastewater retaining pond in Piney Point
An aerial view of the wastewater holding pond in Piney Point on Monday
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the water in the pond is primarily saltwater mixed with wastewater and stormwater.
It has elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and is acidic, but does not appear to be toxic. It is not radioactive.
For around a week, a leak in the reservoir wall meant that between 2million and 3million gallons of water were escaping every day.
Officials warned that a ‘real catastrophic flood situation’ could be imminent with 340 million gallons of wastewater poised to flood homes and businesses if the wall burst.
To try to avoid a total collapse, officials drafted in dozens of pumps and 10 vacuum trucks to remove more than 35 million gallons of wastewater per day into the Tampa Bay estuary.
There, 11 different sampling operations have been monitoring water quality and considering ways of minimizing algae blooms that kill marine life and make beachgoing hazardous to humans in the tourism-dependent state.
Fears of a second breach mounted after a drone identified another possible leak in the reservoir Monday.
But state officials ruled this out later that day saying the risk was ‘unsubstantiated.’
The Florida National Guard is seen flying pumps to the reservoir site Sunday