Piney Point waters may fuel harmful algae bloom along Southwest Florida coast – News-Press

Environmental groups say they worry that recent releases from a Piney Point wastewater treatment facility will eventually fuel an algae bloom that could impact coastal Southwest Florida. 

Nutrient-rich waters from the treatment facility will offset natural balances in the coastal estuaries and will eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where red tide initiates. 

“It does seem like if they pump that volume of water into Tampa Bay that it could very likely stimulate an algae bloom,” said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani. “But they’re not telling us the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. Usually you look at concentrations, and they’re not giving us that data.” 

Karenia brevis is the naturally occurring organism that causes red tide blooms. But the organism can grow to toxic concentrations when conditions are right and spread from the Tampa area south to the Florida Keys. 

The region was partially crippled during a 17-month red tide bloom that started in the fall of 2017 and lasted until the spring of 2019.

Red tides blooms have occurred throughout Florida’s history, but researchers from the University of Miami say they are stronger, more frequent and longer lasting than they were 50 years ago. 

Millions of gallons of wastewater were pumped out of holding facilities at Piney Point in hopes of cutting down on the likelihood of a larger breach. 

“It has heavy metals and all kinds of problems,” said Jacki Lopez with the Center for Biological Diversity. “(The Florida Department of Environmental Protection) should be looking for fish kills and algae blooms. You have a high volume of nutrients coming down in a short period of time, and that’s going to affect the marine ecosystem.” 

Some Southwest Florida environmental organizations are helping document the destruction. 

“Our focus is on how to assist in collecting data to record predischarge conditions and come up with a strategy to collect data during the event,” said Jennifer Hecker, director of the Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Partnership. “This is additional nutrient loading into the Gulf of Mexico, and we know that nutrients can contribute to the severity, frequency and duration of red tide, so we’re concerned about the impacts to our estuaries as well.” 

The group covers a large area including coastal Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties. Hecker said CHNEP is working with other partners under the National Estuaries Program to gather data. 

She said the tainted water will not directly hit Charlotte Harbor, where CHNEP is based, but impacts may eventually be felt anywhere along the coast. 

“We don’t think of it as directly coming down here, but the expectation is it will go out into the Gulf, and once it gets out there, things that are stimulated can move up and down the entire coast of Southwest Florida,” Hecker said. “Something can start in the Tampa Bay region and eventually impact our area down the line.” 

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Andy Mele, a Sarasota resident and longtime environmental activist with Suncoast Waterkeeper who has worked extensively on phosphate mining issues, said the situation happening right now with the discharge of polluted water from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property is the only option available under the current crisis situation, but it could have been avoided if government leaders had acted sooner. 

“They’re up against the wall,” Mele said of the discharges. “That’s all they can do. There is no time for a nice, engineered solution to this. The chickens are coming home to roost after over a decade of indecision by the state and the county.” 

“Everybody’s been avoiding this,” Mele added. “Everybody’s kicking the can down the road. It’s a bear of a problem and it’s all over the state.” 

Wastewater being pumped from the Piney Point reservoir flows into Tampa Bay at Port Manatee, via this water-filled ditch in the center of this image. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan toured Piney Point Monday, getting a look at the breach in the containment wall, the pumping outflow and Port Manatee, where the wastewater is being pumped into Tampa Bay.

Mele said the greatest concern from the current water releases are algae blooms that can lead to fish kills and other environmental problems. 

The water being released is nutrient rich, but it’s not radioactive and not nearly as acidic and toxic as water in other holding ponds on the property. 

The holding pond that is leaking has water that is more diluted because there already have been discharges over the years, Mele said. The other holding ponds still have the original wastewater from the fertilizer plant, which is rich in heavy metals and is as acidic as battery acid, Mele said. 

But the nutrient-rich water being pumped out of the holding pond is still a big concern. Mele said it’s still water “you don’t want to let out in the environment; it’s chock full of nutrient pollution.” 

“If the thing holds off and doesn’t collapse and they just keep pumping and pumping and pumping, you’re still going to have algae blooms and fish kills probably,” Mele said, adding there could be long-term implications because “the stuff just doesn’t go away. When you have a slug of nutrient pollution in the water, it gets taken up by algae and then the algae itself dies and goes to the bottom and becomes legacy pollution that will lift up for years.” 

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Justin Moore, a second-generation fishing guide who has been a captain since 1999, said he’s deeply concerned about the potential for harmful algae blooms. 

“I just don’t know how much more these bays can take,” Moore said. “It’s really unfortunate to see the ecosystem go through this again when this really could have been prevented.” 

Moore said he took a boat ride recently around the area where the water is being dumped. He said there already is a change in water color in the region from Port Manatee up to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and less wildlife. The water normally is clear this time of year. but Moore said it currently is a greenish yellow. 

“There were no birds, hardly any mullet, you can tell the fish are sensing it and moving away from it,” Moore said. 

But Mele said pumping the water out of the holding pond that’s leaking is the “lesser of two evils” because if the breach widens and the pond berm completely collapses, it could lead to a cascade of failures that causes more toxic water from the other holding ponds to be released into the environment. 

That’s because pressure from the water in the holding pond that’s leaking helps stabilize the berms in the ponds that aren’t leaking, so if the water all drains out and the pressure drops, the other berms could collapse. 

“Gyp stacks are machines,” Mele said. “They look like big piles of dirt, but they’re actually very sophisticated, highly engineered machines. They have pumps and pipes and a complicated balance of pressures, so if all of a sudden the big pond drains, it’s likely the back pressure from the one pond will no longer be there to sustain the nasty ponds. The real fear is that one of those could collapse onto where the current pond is now, and follow the stuff into Tampa Bay.” 

The release of the water in the other holding ponds likely would lead to instant fish kills and other environmental devastation, Mele said.

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