By Chris O’Meara and Adriana Gomez Licon The Associated Press
PALMETTO, FLA. » Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Sunday that crews were working to prevent the collapse of a large wastewater pond in the Tampa Bay area while evacuating the area to avoid a “catastrophic flood.”
Manatee County officials say the latest models show that a breach at the old phosphate plant reservoir has the potential to gush out 340 million gallons of water in a matter of minutes, risking a 20-foot-high wall of water.
“What we are looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis said at a press conference after flying over the old Piney Point phosphate mine.
Authorities have closed off portions of the U.S. Highway 41 and ordered evacuations of 316 homes. Some families were placed in local hotels.
Manatee County Sheriff’s officials began evacuating about 345 inmates from a local jail about 1 mile away from the 77-acre pond first floor on Sunday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said models show the area could be covered with between 1 foot to 5 feet of water, and the second floor is 10 feet above ground.
Officials first announced that they would move people and staff to the second story and put sandbags on the ground floor, but Sheriff Rick Wells later said moving all the inmates to the second floor posed a security risk.
County officials say well water remains unaffected and there is no threat to Lake Manatee, the area’s primary source of drinking water.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the water in the pond is primarily salt water mixed with wastewater and storm water. It has elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and is acidic, but not expected to be toxic, the agency says.
Crews have been discharging water since the pond began leaking in March. On Friday, a significant leak that was detected escalated the response and prompted the first evacuations and a declaration of a state of emergency on Saturday. A portion of the containment wall in the reservoir shifted, leading officials to think a collapse could occur at any time.
Hopes, the county administrator, said Sunday that with new state resources, crews will be nearly doubling the amount of water being pumped out of the pond and taken to Port Manatee. About 22,000 gallons of water were being discharged per minute, and Hopes said he expects the risk of collapse to decrease by Tuesday.