A drone spotted the potential leak at 2 a.m. EDT as engineers and crew work around the clock to pump wastewater into the Tampa Bay from Piney Point Reservoir, about 40 miles south of the city of Tampa, officials said.
“An infrared drone identified a signature that could indicate a second breach” that caused a temporary evacuation of engineers working at the site, Manatee County Director of Public Safety Jacob Saur told reporters shortly after noon.
But “seepage rates remained steady overnight” at Piney Point, Saur said, adding that engineers “are back out at the site now and they’re reassessing that.”
Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Florida, said he appreciated the work being done to pump water out of harm’s way, but is still worried about a possible collapse.
“I know they’re making some progress,” Buchanan said. “To see the water spewing out, it looked pretty contaminated to me so I’m very … concerned about this.”
The reservoir holds a mix of saltwater, fresh water, wastewater and fertilizer runoff, and Gov. Ron DeSantis told Floridians on Sunday that crews are working around the clock to prevent a collapse and possible “catastrophic flood.”
A breach at the old phosphate plant reservoir could gush out 300 million gallons in a 20-foot-high wall of water, Manatee County officials have said.
Stretches of U.S. Highway 41 have been closed off and residents of 316 homes already evacuated. And a local jail a mile away from the 77-acre pond has been evacuated.
Engineers were moving water out of harm’s way at a rate of about 35 million gallons per day during morning hours, according to Manatee County Interim Administrator Scott Hopes. And with additional pumps being employed on Monday, it’s hoped that rate could exceed 75 million gallons per day by the evening.
“You can see how, within probably 48 hours, if all those flows continue, we will be at a situation where will we no longer have that risk of that full breach which would send that 20-foot wall of water across,” Hopes said.
Congressman Buchanan, who grew up near Detroit, said this threat is reviving bad childhood memories of the pollution he’d see in Lake Erie.
“When I see (contaminated) water flowing into Tampa Bay, frankly It makes me sick about it,” Buchanan said.
“It (Lake Erie) was so polluted, you couldn’t swim in it. If you caught a fish, you couldn’t eat it. I don’t want to go back to those dark days. I’m not saying we are here. I think we are making some progress.”
The Associated Press contributed.