Four days after a state of emergency was declared, a former phosphate processing plant in Manatee County, Florida continues to leak and is on the verge of a. But for those who live in or right outside the evacuation zone of the Piney Point reservoir, they say there is little communication from officials, and that their current situation is like “living at the base of an active volcano.”
Melissa Fitzsimmons lives on five acres of land just one block away from the border of the evacuation zone in Palmetto, Florida. She told CBS News on Monday that officials have not kept her family updated on the situation and that they have had to resort to local news to get insight about what’s been happening just a few miles away. To go down their road to their home, she said, they have to show their IDs to officers to prove where they live.
Fitzsimmons said she and her husband are “absolutely terrified” about what might happen if the facility collapses, especially because of her baby.
“By the time we heard about it [this incident], it was like oh you’re almost in the evacuation zone,” she said. “When we saw it on a map how close it was to us, my stomach turned. I have a 19-month-old daughter… I honestly feel embarrassed and just super angry that this is going on.”
Officials on Monday told reporters that the leaks are still not fixed. Additional pumps are being moved into the site to help pump out additional water by the end of the day. Acting Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said they are hoping to pump out between 75 and 100 millions gallons of water per day, starting at the end of Monday.
Breaches have been detected along the facility’s eastern wall, and last night, a drone with thermal imaging detected what could be a second breach in the southern reservoir, which engineers are currently investigating. The most visible breach remains the one along the southeast corner, where water can be seen steadily flowing out.
Not everyone living within the evacuation zone, however, has left.
Sari Lindroos lives within the evacuation zone, and described a rather typical Monday scene to CBS News.
“People went to work, walk their dogs,” Lindroos said. “I asked the neighbors if they plan on leaving, they said [there’s] no where to go.”
Nobody was panicking, Lindroos said, and the only thing that has seemed odd is that FedEx trucks were not on their usual routes. Officials have not provided Lindroos’ household with information about the situation, they said, and it’s prompted skepticism about how serious the situation really is.
Inmates at Manatee County Jail, which is within two miles of Piney Point, have not all been moved out. On Sunday, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office told CBS News that 345 inmates were going to be relocated to a new facility to “free up bed space for the remaining 721 inmates on the upper level” of the jail. On Monday, however, the office told CBS News that only 267 were transferred to a correctional facility in Polk County “based on risk factors involving inmate classification.”
“Deputies are working on getting an additional 34 inmates awaiting prison sentences (currently on hold for COVID protocols) transferred to the Florida Department of Corrections,” the office said. “As an added precaution we have the ability to move another 200 inmates to another facility (undisclosed at this time) if needed.”
Others in the area have tweeted about the situation. One woman said her family opted to stay at their home, despite being in the evacuation zone, because they weren’t comfortable leaving livestock behind to “fend for themselves.”
A major concern for Fitzsimmons right now is having safe and reliable water. Many of the homes in her area, she told CBS News, rely on a well.
“Typically being on well water is amazing because it’s spring-fed in Florida, so for our purposes, we’re extremely concerned because it’s a private well.”
Manatee County officials said on Sunday that well water is unaffected “so long as the outfall continues to flow safely into Piney Creek.”
“If a breach occurs, we believe that the surface layers of dirt and earth will safely filter any harmful nutrients near the surface. In addition, if an uncontrolled breach occurs, the Department of Health will issue any necessary advisories regarding the safety of the well water,” officials said.
Fitzsimmons said they got a toxicology report on the water when they moved into the area four years ago, and everything passed “beautifully,” but she said that as soon as she learned of the current situation on Saturday, she ordered another test. No matter the results, however, she said she doesn’t trust how officials are handling the situation.
“They keep talking about, ‘oh we’re so worried about the breach,” Fitzsimmons said, “but the bigger breach is the breach of trust between the local community and the government and the private company that owns the site.”
She said she doesn’t think their house will necessarily get flooded, and if there is an issue, they have family just a few miles away, but Fitzsimmons and her husband are concerned what this could mean for their health and environment. Hurricane season is just two months away, and Florida’s Gulf Coast often becomes a target along storms’ paths.
“Even if it’s an inch of this water in your yard, would you want an inch of water like that in your yard?” she said. “It’s not the flooding we’re worried about right now. We’re more so worried about the long-term lasting effect if this does breach or even if it doesn’t breach. … It’s just so irresponsible.”
“There’s going to be a lot of questions and a lot of decisions that we have to make,” she added. “And there’s going to be a lot of people that need to give us answers.”
On Monday, Florida Representative Vern Buchanan, who has long attempted to raise awareness and oversight of the former phosphate processing plant, said at a press conference that he shares many locals’ concerns. He said he flew over the site in a helicopter, and that the water looked “very contaminated.”
He helped coordinate getting the Environmental Protection Agency involved, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. Up until their involvement, officials were relying on third party engineers through HRK Holdings to handle the situation.
“Enough is enough,” Buchanan told reporters. “…We can’t go on with more than a billion gallons of water contaminated in this region. …It really is concerning that we don’t deal with these things.”
Buchanan had requested the EPA to get involved back in October, asking EPA Regional Administrator Kathy Walker to enforced federal rules about the storage and cleanup of hazardous materials. Since the Piney Point plant opened up in 1966 and was abandoned in 2001, he said in a press release, “various stakeholders have failed to agree on a solution to safely drain the property’s toxic phosphogypsum stacks.”
He warned Walker that the area “faces a potential environmental nightmare” as the ponds filled with water and toxic stacks of phosphogypsum waste were “approaching maximum capacity.”
“Contaminated water from a long-abandoned phosphate processing plant is threatening to leak into our region’s water supply,” Buchanan wrote to Walker, according to a press release. “Federal oversight is urgently needed to ensure the safe management and disposal of the contaminated water and prevent an environmental disaster.”
Locals like Fitzsimmons have also told CBS News that they are concerned by new housing developments that have become commonplace in the area in an attempt to market the location to new residents. Several new developments in the area can be easily found on Zillow and other home finding sites.
“They’re really pushing this area as an amazing location for families,” Fitzsimmons said. “People are moving to this area and it is rapidly expanding. And there is no awareness about how close this is, how big of an environmental and impact on our health it [the phosphate facility] could have had, just by existing. There’s no awareness about this at all in the local community that I have seen.”
“Our whole quality of life was destroyed. We can’t feel safe,” she said. “…They’re pushing and trying to make this area seem so attractive to live, knowing there’s a ticking time bomb immediately here. It’s like living at the base of an active volcano that you didn’t even know existed.”