Pinellas County Commissioners were taken back by some of the statistics they heard at their latest red tide update; most notably, over 3.65 million pounds of dead fish have been removed – and the number continues to climb.
Kelly Levy, Director of Public Works for Pinellas County, gave a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners on the ongoing red tide crises at their Tuesday meeting. She commended the county for having a plan in place following the last severe red tide event in 2018, crediting the collaboration between the county, local municipalities, and state and federal partners for helping to mitigate the disaster.
Levy said the county began seeing red tide effects on area beaches June 16, before it began dissipating around June 28. When Tropical Storm Elsa impacted the Pinellas coast July 6, it pushed the harmful algal blooms back onshore and into the Tampa Bay and area waterways. After inundating the bay, the red tide has now moved back along the coast. In less than two months, more than 1,823 tons of dead fish and debris have been removed – or over 3,650,000 pounds.
“Kudos to our Solid Waste Department because they accepted all of it regardless of where it was coming from,” said Levy.
So far, the county has expended $2.1 million in cleanup efforts and has an agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for them to cover $902,500. Levy said additional invoicing is in progress, and the plan is to submit a supplemental request to cover the difference. She added the FDEP indicated it has additional funds allocated to cover the total amount. On Aug. 24, the county will move forward on an Interlocal Agreement with the City of St. Petersburg to reimburse the city for its expenditures relating to the crises.
Levy cautioned that there is still no way to know how long this current event will last and that the area is still in the middle of the usual red tide “season.”
“A few weeks ago, I said I was cautiously optimistic,” said Levy. “The satellite imagery was looking good, and then it came back with a vengeance.”
Piney Point update
Levy then turned her attention to Piney Point, the former phosphate plant located in Manatee County that released 215 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay in April. The emergency release occurred from March 30 to April 9. The University of South Florida created a model to track the plume of contaminated water, showing low levels encroaching the St. Petersburg coast by April 9.
About a month later, the plume concentrated around St. Pete and the southern Pinellas coast. Levy said that’s when a blue-green algae bloom was first spotted on Indian Rocks Beach and in Sarasota, which she called an “anomalous event.” By May 23, Karenia brevis – the organism that causes red tide – had reached bloom levels in middle-Tampa Bay.
“Was it the match that started the fire – that’s the hard question to answer,” said Levy. “But it has definitely increased the amount of nitrogen entering Tampa Bay.”
“In a short amount of time, an entire year’s worth of nitrogen was dumped.”
Levy added that officials are currently discharging stormwater, as onsite water management is critical to properly closing the plant. She said they are releasing about a million gallons a day and that “it does contain some ammonia.” The FDEP is currently reviewing a permit application for an Underground Injection Control well to dispose of the water, although that also carries significant environmental risks.
Compounding matters are the recent heavy rainfall and the possibility of more tropical weather on the horizon. Levy said the most urgent issue facing the facility is water management. She said last week the plant received four inches of rain, and every inch of rain is a million gallons of water.
“It’s a huge issue,” she said. “That is why they are moving forward with a discharge.”
Levy said since the emergency order is no longer in place, discharges must comply with their permitting. That means discharges are going into Bishop Harbor and not Tampa Bay. Two contractors are also repeatedly treating the water before it is deemed safe enough to release it.
“It doesn’t appear to be an efficient process by my estimation of it,” said Levy. “I just want to be clear – this is not going to be over this year, next year, or even the next year. It is going to take a long time to move that volume of water.”