FORT MYERS, Fla. – Environmental groups worry that releases from the Piney Point wastewater treatment facility near Tampa Bay will eventually fuel an algae bloom that could harm areas of coastal Florida.
Nutrient-rich waters from the treatment facility will offset natural balances in the coastal estuaries and 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 John Cassani of the southwest Florida nonprofit organization Calusa Waterkeeper. “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.”
A harmful algal bloom, also known as red tide, occurs when algae grow out of control and yield toxic or harmful effects on people and wildlife, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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 fall 2017 and lasted until spring 2019.
Red tide 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 have been pumped out of holding facilities at Piney Point, a long-abandoned phosphate plant, to drain a leaking wastewater reservoir in an effort to prevent a full 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.”
She said the tainted water could cause problems along the Gulf Coast of southwest Florida.
“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.
After years of ‘kicking the can down the road,’ no more time for a ‘nice, engineered solution’
Andy Mele, a Sarasota resident and longtime environmental activist with Suncoast Waterkeeper who has worked extensively on phosphate mining issues, said the discharge of polluted water is the only option available right now, but it could have been avoided if government leaders had acted sooner.
“They’re up against the wall,” Mele said. “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.”
Mele said the greatest concerns 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 leaking holding pond 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,” Mele said.
‘You can tell the fish are sensing it’
Justin Moore, a second-generation fishing guide who has been a captain since 1999, said he’s deeply concerned.
“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 is now 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 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 leaking pond 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.
The release of the water in the other holding ponds likely would lead to instant fish kills and environmental devastation, Mele said.