The evacuation order might have been lifted for residents threatened by the leaking Piney Point phosphate fertilizer plant reservoir, but the threat is far from over for Tampa Bay’s marine wildlife, particularly the manatees that frequent the area to stay warm in the winter months and feed on seagrass beds.
As of Wednesday, about 165 million gallons of polluted water from the failing pond in Manatee County had been pumped into Tampa Bay, with some 300 million gallons remaining. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the fluid leaking from the shuttered facility is a combination of saltwater, wastewater and stormwater. The mixture contains high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen, and such large amounts of excess nutrients in the bay could lead to algal blooms that, according to Clearwater Marine Aquarium Executive Director Dr. James Powelll, could “shade out” the seagrass beds that manatees feed on.
“My first reaction to it was this could potentially have been, and may still be, a pretty catastrophic event for manatees,” Powell told the Catalyst. “We’ve got hundreds of manatees just 13 miles north of there at the TECO power plant. They need to go out and feed on the seagrass beds.”
Indeed, Tampa Electric Co.’s Apollo Beach plant is a popular winter haven for manatees, who, as warm-blooded mammals, need to seek warm coastal and inland waters when the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay become too cold for them. TECO’s power station draws so many of the beloved “sea cows” that the utility built a manatee viewing center at the site that’s become a popular tourist attraction.
Likewise, the waters around Port Manatee, located near the Piney Point pond leak, are a popular source of winter warmth for manatees. Powell said the animals are already “stressed out” from the cold and a disruption to their food supply could lead to unnecessary deaths. A similar situation has already unfolded in Brevard County, on the east coast of Florida, where 168 manatees have died just since the beginning of the year. Experts say algal blooms caused by a nutrient-saturated Indian River Lagoon are to blame.
“You can’t connect these dots, necessarily,” Powell said, “but there are similarities. You have manatees starving. When they come in [to inland waters], they’re trying to stay warm. Again, it’s a very stressful period in their lives. It’s all about staying warm. They will sacrifice feeding for warmth, but if the seagrass beds close to the power plant were impacted, that would mean they would have to swim farther and through cold water to be able to feed.”
The first step to preventing a mass manatee die-off in Tampa Bay is to gather data, and the University of South Florida College of Marine Science has wasted no time in that regard. At the crack of dawn Wednesday morning, a team of scientists from the St. Petersburg institution set out on a research cruise aboard the R/V Weatherbird II. Led by USF chemical oceanographer Kristen Buck and biological oceanographer Steve Murawski, the team was accompanied by staff from the Florida Institute of Oceanography.
“Rapid deployments like this one provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to get out there and provide the science necessary to inform an effective response, as well as any necessary mitigation efforts, so that we can safeguard our vulnerable coastal resources,” College of Marine Science Dean Tom Frazer stated in a news release.
The release went on to state that the USF/FIO team will collect water samples, surface sediments and fish from Tampa Bay and Port Manatee. They will perform a comprehensive suite of analysis to assess salinity, oxygen, pH, carbon, bacteria, phytoplankton, nutrients, trace metals, fish health and more. While some results, such as pH, will be apparent immediately, most will take weeks to months. Samples will also be sent to research partners at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Eckerd College and Florida State University.
“They’re going to be looking at a host of different concentrations of nutrients in the water as it would relate to their baseline,” Powell said. “Hopefully they’ve been out in the past, collecting similar types of information, because otherwise you just have a point in time and need something to compare it to.”
The great unknown, Powell added, is whether — and to what extent — the nutrient overload will worsen the red tide that’s recently cropped up in southwest Florida. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s April 2 update, red tide has been found in high concentrations in Charlotte County, and a fish kill that could be related to red tide was reported in Collier County. Red tide has been detected in low concentrations as far north as Sarasota County.
“It’s very complex in terms of what feeds these red tide events, and conditions have to be right,” Powell said, “but now we’re introducing a new variable and new factor into this. I would imagine [the USF/FIO team] will be taking a look at what the potential is for this contaminated water to flush out of Tampa Bay and be diluted, or potentially create conditions that might be beneficial for red tide to occur farther north, up in our area.”
Powell said the Piney Point fiasco points to the need for stronger environmental regulations and oversight in tourism-dependent Florida, which suffered through closed beaches and a subsequent decline in visitors in fall 2018 when red tide plagued both coasts. HRK Holdings, the company that owns the shuttered Piney Point phosphate plant, acquired the facility in 2006. In a statement, the company said it “inherited the problem” of a defective liner at the reservoir and is involved in a legal dispute with Ardaman & Associates, which it said is responsible for the original design and installation of the liner, which began to fail in 2011.
“I certainly hope [authorities] will hold the owner or owners of the property accountable for the damage,” Powell said, “not only in terms of the individuals who have been impacted, people’s health, but also the health of the whole ecosystem, which is very difficult to put a number on.”
RELATED STORY: It’s not just Piney Point that has a troubled history — it’s the entire phosphate industry in Florida.