Manatee County, Florida, is in a state of emergency and residents are being evacuated as a toxic wastewater reservoir is on the brink of collapse, and Gov. Ron DeSantis said crews are working to prevent "a real catastrophic flood situation."
Families in at least 316 homes were ordered to evacuate Saturday after officials warned that Piney Point Reservoir, about 40 miles south of Tampa, could flood homes with 15 to 20 feet of water if it collapses.
The reservoir holds a mix of saltwater, fresh water, wastewater and fertilizer runoff. DeSantis clarified Sunday that the water is not radioactive after concerns were raised because the ponds are in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct of manufacturing fertilizer.
Part of the reservoir's retaining wall shifted laterally, which means total structural collapse is possible, Manatee County public safety officials said. If that were to happen, 600 million gallons of water could leave the retention pool in a matter of minutes, they said.
A natural gas plant that provides energy to millions in the region is also in the flood zone, causing additional concern.
A jail a mile from the leaky pond had not yet had to evacuate, but officials are moving people to a higher floor and placing sandbags on the ground level. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said the area could be flooded with several feet of water.
Crews are working to move water out of the reservoir as fast as possible, but it could take more than a week.About 22,000 gallons of water are being discharged per minute, and Hopes said he expects the risk of a collapse to drop in a couple of days.
The Environmental Protection Agency is sending a representative to the command center in Manatee County, officials said.
"We hope the contamination is not as bad as we fear, but are preparing for significant damage to Tampa Bay and the communities that rely on this precious resource," Justin Bloom, founder of the Sarasota-based nonprofit organization Suncoast Waterkeeper, said in a statement.