In Piney Point Florida, homes have been evacuated, emergency crews brought in, and a state of emergency declared.  One model shows a 20-ft wall of water that could head into a residential zone.  No, it’s not a hurricane – a reservoir is leaking chemical wastewater.  How can this be?

Let’s call them “legacy” sites.  Starting two hundred years ago, mines and industrial plants began operating all over the US.  Change of ownership happened frequently.  Economic boom or bust caused sites to be abandoned, sometimes we call them ghost towns and other times they disappeared almost altogether.  As sites were abandoned, time went on, and issues from contamination began to emerge. 

Although restoration of abandoned mines and industrial sites is addressed by the federal government, thousands of sites continue to pose a threat to water and nearby communities.  These sites include coal mines, metal mines, and chemical plants.  Sites that were abandoned prior to the 1960s were not subject to regulatory controls.  And with multiple changes of ownership, it can be difficult to determine a financially responsible party today.

This is exactly what’s happened in Piney Point.  The site changed owners multiple times, meanwhile a debate went on as to appropriate solutions and financially responsible party.  As the debate went on, problems at the site persisted.  In 2011, nearly 170 million gallons of contaminated water from this site flushed into Tampa Bay during a dredging operation. Two years ago, local legislators stated that a top priority was to ensure funding to reduce contaminated water and avoid a potential disaster from the reservoirs at Piney Point; there was concern that a major storm could cause reservoir overflow.  Now, the reservoir failed seemingly on its own, not forced to do so because of a storm.    

As I type, tens of millions of gallons of wastewater are being pumped out of the reservoir and into the Tampa Bay ecosystem.  There is fear of red tide in the ecosystem.  But, if the pumping does not take place, and the reservoir is not drained, it could fail and result in a horrible 20-ft water wall scenario for nearby communities.  Both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Governor have indicated that they intend to hold Piney Point owners accountable. 

Really, it’s long past time for debate.  A lined pond is no long-term solution for contaminated water anywhere.  Find out more about legacy sites where you live at the EPA’s Superfund website

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Two dolphins swimming in Tampa Bay near Port Manatee in Florida.  Photo by Mike Lang, from Sarasota Herald-Tribune.