Crews racing to contain a wastewater leak from a pond in the Tampa Bay area have spotted a potential second breach Monday as evacuation orders remain in effect, officials say.
The development comes after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned Sunday of a “catastrophic flood situation” if the body of water at Piney Point, a former phosphate mine, collapses. Manatee County officials said at one point that an ongoing breach there has the potential to gush out a 20-foot-high wall of water — but as of Monday afternoon, around 300 million gallons remain and the threat of a full breach could be contained within 48 hours as crews drain the pond.
“At approximately 2 a.m., an infrared drone identified a signature that could indicate a second breach,” Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur told reporters. “However … the Army Corps of Engineers, new engineers from the [Florida] Department of Environmental Protection are back out at the site now and they are reassessing that.”
Saur added that the rate at which water is currently flowing out of the pond has not changed since Sunday night.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the water in the pond is primarily saltwater mixed with wastewater and stormwater. It has elevated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen and is acidic, but is not expected to be toxic, the agency says.
Crews that have responded to the site are pumping about 35 million gallons of water out of the pond each day into Port Manatee.
By Monday night, after additional pumps are brought online, that rate will “more than double” to about 75 million to 100 million gallons of water per day, according to Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes.
Authorities have closed off portions of the U.S. Highway 41 and ordered evacuations of 316 homes while the operation is ongoing. Some families were placed in local hotels.
Crews have been discharging water since the pond began leaking in March. On Friday, a significant leak that was detected escalated the response and prompted the first evacuations and a declaration of a state of emergency on Saturday. A portion of the containment wall in the reservoir shifted, leading officials to think a collapse could occur at any time.
Early Sunday, officials saw an increase of water leaking out, but Hopes says it seems to have plateaued. The water running out on its own is going to Piney Point creek and into Cockroach Bay, an aquatic preserve in the Tampa Bay north of the facility.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.