MANATEE COUNTY (CBSMiami) — An evacuation order has now been lifted for residents and businesses who were forced out over the weekend following an uncontrolled release of wastewater from the Piney Point Reservoir in Manatee County.
Tuesday, newly released images of the reservoir show noticeably lower water levels after officials scrambled to drain the holding pond in efforts to prevent millions of gallons of wastewater from spilling into those nearby homes and businesses.READ MORE: Social Media Crackdown Moves Forward
Piney Point, about 20 miles south of Tampa, is a former phosphate plant and the wastewater contains elevated levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which can feed the algae that causes red tide.
Crews have been pumping more than 30 million gallons of wastewater from the reservoir into several locations, like the Tampa Bay, treatment facilities and an unused 35-million-gallon pond nearby.
The efforts are working. In addition to lifting the evacuation order, Highway 4 reopened as well.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried toured the area on Tuesday and said the Piney Point breach was a problem 20 years in the making, and she wants to make sure a similar disaster doesn’t happen in the future.
“We are destroying the future of our state, and we cannot afford to do that. And if we had done what was right 20 years ago, um, and every subsequent administration since, um if we had done what was right back then, we might not be on the hook right now for $200 million.”
The Florida Senate will consider a budget amendment on Wednesday to spend as much as $200 million to clean up the site.
“Nothing was done, and they completely turned a blind eye to the situation and also fully aware that there are other ponds across our state that have similar leaks, uh, that we need to really get ahead of, um, because this is disastrous,” said Fried.
“Our water quality is of utmost importance. We need safety and we need to feel good about where we live,” said Manatee County Commissioner James Satcher.
Satcher said while the focus right now is on public safety, soon that focus will shift.
“We are going to shift to keeping as much water out of the bay as possible and any water that does go into the bay, we are going to make sure it’s as clean as possible.”READ MORE: Congressional Representatives Want To Reinstate Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program
But first the goal is to get the 300 million gallons of water that’s left in the Piney Point Reservoir removed to avoid a previously predicted 20-foot tidal wave.
“Two large 18-inch pumps should be connected and running by early this afternoon, again focusing on that moving of additional water to control discharge. We have two to three boats a day out in the water collecting water samples,” said John Truitt from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state emergency for the Tampa area because the reservoir was at risk of collapsing.
Crews believe they have prevented that from happening.
Despite that, Fried said Florida’s environment has to be a priority.
“If we are going to continue loving our state and bringing tourists here and having our beautiful beaches and our amazing coastlines and all of our Springs that we got to make the environment a top of priority.”
The Agriculture Commissioner was joined by State Senator Janet Cruz.
“We’re headed for ecological disaster here. So, you know, the state needs to file a lawsuit. We need to recoup every damn penny that we spend. You know, the $150 million that we’re spending to fix this mess could go to different areas of the environment. Yet we have to go fix someone else’s mess.”
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.”MORE NEWS: Earth Day: Driftwood Middle School 'Green Team' Immersed In Environmental Wellness
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.”