PALMETTO, Fla. - Emergency crews have been working around the clock to prevent a full-scale disaster at Piney Point, the site of an old phosphate plant that has been leaking contaminated water for days.
The immediate danger is a wall of water washing into homes. Hundreds of people are under evacuation orders as millions of gallons remain in the unstable pond.
As the water is slowly pumped out, the risk of a full breach and flooding decreases. But the threat to the environment is growing.
A new team of engineers was on site Monday using a thermal imagine drone to get a better view of what’s happening beneath the murky water and muddy berms.
"We were able to get a better idea at how the retention walls are progressing through this," explained Manatee County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes.
The drone initially spotted a section of the retention walls that seemed too watery, raising fears of a second breach. But late Monday, the Department of Environmental Protection said those fears turned out to be "unsubstantiated."
They also confirmed that the water is not radioactive.
Meanwhile, 26 pumps and 10 vacuum trucks should be up and running by the end of the night, with the capacity to remove 100 million gallons of water a day and pipe it into nearby Tampa Bay.
Every drop of water pulled from the pond reduces the chance of a catastrophic collapse.
"The only pool at risk is that southernmost pool, where we have identified breaches, where we do have some uncontrolled release of water, but that water is flowing the pathway that had been predicted," Hopes continued.
By Monday evening, the uncontrolled discharge to Piney Point Creek had stopped. And if all goes well, the gypsum stack could be drained within two days.
Then, Congressman Vern Buchanan says, Piney Point will be cleared out once and for all.
"I want the best and the brightest on the ground," he offered. "This is something that’s unfortunately could have been dealt with over the years. I’m not looking to assess any blame or anything else."
As the immediate threat is lessened, the congressman says now attention will be placed on the bay, where all that water is being dumped -- and the potential impacts that could yet be seen.
"I want to be hopeful. I want to be optimistic but just the fact that we are running water into Tampa Bay is not the best thing and not the best place to be at, but the reality of it is it seems like it’s the best thing to do right now," he continued. "When I see water flowing into Tampa Bay it, frankly, makes me sick about it."
Courtesy: National Guard
Environmentalists fear the dump of nutrients could produce an algae bloom that would kill marine life and even be harmful to humans.
The DEP says they've been out every day, collecting water samples from 11 locations across Tampa Bay. They will compare them against a baseline to see the impacts that are happening to the bay.