Florida officials on Tuesday announced their intention to permanently shut down a leaking wastewater reservoir south of Tampa that had forced hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes under the threat of a catastrophic collapse.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said on Tuesday that he was allocating more than $15 million to start the process of closing the 79-acre reservoir, which is part of a system of ponds connected to a former phosphate mine in Piney Point, Fla. He said he was directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop a plan to permanently close the site.
“We want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story,” Mr. DeSantis said at a news conference at the reservoir.
A leak was detected at the site on March 26, and officials said water was leaking at a rate of two million to three million gallons a day. The reservoir held 480 million gallons of water, and local officials said they feared that if it gave way, a collapse could unleash a 20-foot wall of water. A week later, there were 390 million gallons remaining, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said.
Mr. DeSantis declared a state of emergency for three counties near the reservoir. He also issued an evacuation order affecting more than 300 homes near the site in Manatee County.
Officials raced to drain the reservoir, pumping 75 million to 100 million gallons a day, up from 35 million gallons earlier. The water being discharged was primarily seawater from a dredging project, “mixed with legacy process water and storm water runoff/rainfall,” according to a state website tracking developments with the reservoir.
Officials said the primary concern about the discharged water was the concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus but emphasized that the water was not radioactive. A sudden, uncontrolled breach could have upended stacks of phosphogypsum, a waste product of phosphate mining, that hold the ponds.
The ultimate cost and timeline for the closing are unclear. Mr. DeSantis said $15.4 million would be redirected for “innovative technologies to pretreat water at the site,” which can mitigate the effects of further discharges. He also said he expected the state Legislature to allocate additional funding.
Wilton Simpson, the Senate president, who joined Mr. DeSantis on Tuesday, said he expected the Legislature to allocate $100 million “for the initial funding. And by the end of the year we hope to get a full closure plan with a fully funded amount that may be required.”
The crisis at the Piney Point reservoir underscores the risks posed by giant pools of wastewater, which are a common feature at thousands of industrial and agricultural sites across the country. They are vital to major industries like livestock and power generation.
But environmental groups say they pose major environmental, health and safety risks, whether from mismanagement or, increasingly, from the effects of climate change.