Did Tampa See it Coming? A Tidal Wave of Waste

by Max Rauch

What Can You Do?

  • Stay up to date with legislation on waste clean up projects
  • Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle materials to ensure safety for marine life

Florida is commonly known as a place where people go on vacation, swim at the beach, and relax. However, when looking deeper into the history of the state, there are other aspects that need focus on. There are currently 27 phosphate mines in Florida, including the most pronounced Piney Point, occupying over 450,000 acres in total. [1] Nine of the mines are still operational, while the remaining nine have repurposed the ground they once mined, ensuring that the operators have cleaned up the area. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the remaining nine mines are essentially shut down. [1]

Although these mines are normally seen as a means for economic and environmental stability, they actually can propose more danger than good. Officials in Florida have been struggling for the past week following a massive spill in a drainage pond at the former Piney Point phosphate mining plant and have been labeled as a catastrophic event. Although authorities were able to drain the reservoir enough to prevent a wave of wastewater from flooding the city, the problem still needs tending to. [2] Residents in the surrounding area are protected for the time being, but millions of gallons of water have poured into the land and nearby rivers, and millions more have been drained directly into Port Manatee, an entry to Tampa Bay on Florida’s west coast, to save the reservoir from collapsing. According to the state’s environmental agency, nearly 237 million gallons of water spilled from the reservoir between March 26 and April 9. [3] 

Officials claim the water in the reservoir follows the water quality requirements, minus the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, and total ammonia nitrogen, and that it does not contain unsafe amounts of radioactive waste. The pollutants nitrogen and phosphorus are the most concerning of the spill, which is a mixture of saltwater, process water, and stormwater. Experts agree that although both are essential for plant life, excessive concentrations will kill habitats. [2] The Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which monitors water quality near Piney Point, says that it is most concerned with increased total nitrogen and ammonia entering waters because of the devastating effects these contaminants may have on ecological health. Nitrogen amounts greater than 5-10 milligrams per liter can be harmful, and studies indicate that nitrogen levels above Piney Point were considerably higher. One water sample from Piney Point, where wastewater was originally leaking into, registered 191.5 milligrams per liter of nitrogen,  a level more than 19 times more than the supposed maximum. According to the index, another close location measured 214.4 milligrams per liter, which is more than 21 times higher. As a recommendation from Florida Environmental Officials, total nitrogen content in seawater should be held below 0.74 milligrams per liter. [4]

Maintaining sufficient nitrogen ratios is always a top priority to ensure environmental stability. Excessive levels of the nutrient insight the growth of algae, which decreases the amount of light that can reach the water. It has been demonstrated that algae blooms had a destructive impact on sea life because the algae reduce oxygen levels when it expands and also as it dies and rots. If this continues, it would have a detrimental impact on seagrass, a crucial plant for the ecology of Tampa Bay. [4] Seagrass is important for maintaining overall water quality, as well as providing food and shelter for manatees and other marine life. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, if the seagrass disappears, it could put Florida manatees in jeopardy. Manatees are an endangered species that are experiencing an unexpected die-off occurrence. Throughout the year, over 600 manatees were discovered dead, and between 2016 and 2020, there were a total of 203 deaths per year in the population.

On Wednesday, Florida state senators passed an amendment allocating $3 million to clean up and properly dispose of wastewater that has caused residents and environmentalists fear and anger for decades. Senator Jim Boyd’s amendment allots $3 million to the Piney Point Emergency Water Treatment Project in order to safely dispose of wastewater and conduct site cleanup. The change is part of the General Appropriations Act, which sets the state’s spending for the next fiscal year. [5] As one of the deeper focuses of the amendment, the south drainage tank, which has been overflowing, had around 258 million gallons of water in it. Officials claim they’re removing 38 million gallons a day and have drained 173 million gallons into Port Manatee, and water tests have shown elevated levels of phosphorus in the areas around the Port Manatee discharge point. The senator of Florida estimates that closing Piney Point would cost up to $200 million, and he has committed to using relief funds from the American Rescue Plan to help offset the costs. He also said after the meeting on Wednesday that he could request a count of “how many Piney Points” there are in Florida. He also said that Florida legislators are committed to enacting laws that would help protect private property owners. [5]

In addition to the extensive working in progress by Florida lawmakers, surrounding universities have also taken interest in the oil spill. A group of researchers from the University of South Florida was among the first to embark on a research cruise to investigate the latest breach at the fertilizer manufacturing plant Piney Point in Manatee County. For its research, the USF research team embarked on the R/V Weatherbird II, which was also used by USF in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort. [6] They used this machine to test water samples, as well as surface soil and fish, which will be collected from Tampa Bay and Port Manatee. The team additionally is testing oxygen, pH, bacteria, nutrients, and other factors in each sample to see how differences in water impact mammalian health. USF Research has long been involved in researching global affairs, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The local economy benefits from research as well. According to the senior vice president of USF’s Science Innovation and Knowledge industry, every dollar spent on research has a $2.1 economic effect. From 2009 to 2019, the economic value of the USF study increased from $720 million to $1.2 billion. [7]

The efforts from the university, in addition to those of policymakers, has had a substantial impact on the overall wellbeing of Tampa bay. The recent amendment and the implementation of a clean-up process are providing a promising future for the water stability and marine life of Tampa Bay. The state senator has overall put forward appropriate measures to ensure the safety of the residents in close proximity, and communities have also been coming together in order to potentially bring Piney Point back to its original, beautiful state.


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  1. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/florida-wastewater-leak-piney-point-near-catastrophe-harm/
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/hazardous-spill-in-florida-highlights-environmental-threat-decades-in-the-making
  3. https://www.bizjournals.com/tampabay/news/2021/04/07/usf-research-cruise-will-study-piney-point-leak.html
  4. https://www.abc57.com/news/wastewater-from-piney-point-has-tampa-bay-on-edge-for-possible-red-tide-algae-bloom
  5. https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/major-spill-tampa-bay-21-years-ago-month.html
  6. https://floridadep.gov/dleer/oer/content/tampa-bay-oil-spill-restoration-plan-and-environmental-assessment
  7. https://secoora.org/oil_spill_cleanup/