The Sunshine State: home to the Everglades, Kissimmee Prairie State Park, Lake Okeechobee, Florida Reef and now an environmental crisis. On April 4, Florida declared a state of emergency due to a toxic wastewater reservoir on the brink of collapse in Manatee County.
On April 20, Manatee County commissioners approved a $9.35 million contract to dispose of the wastewater through a deep injection well. Even though action has been taken to fix the crisis, the Piney Point reservoir serves as a lesson for all Floridians to learn from.
What is in the water?
The reservoir holds a mix of saltwater, freshwater, wastewater and fertilizer runoff. Even more dangerous than the harmful mixture is a potential 600 million gallons of water leaving the pool in a matter of minutes. Additionally, a natural gas plant that provides energy to millions in the region is also in the flood zone. Not only could this mean no electricity for residents but a break in the pipeline could lead to fires and explosions, causing significant damage to Tampa Bay communities that rely on this water source.
Could we have prevented this?
Many environmental advocates said they knew this crisis was coming. Phosphate mining began in 1966 in Florida, and the state produced 80% of the phosphate mined in the United States. Piney Point sits on top of a phosphogypsum stack, which is a massive depository containing waste byproducts of phosphate fertilizer. When these stacks become large and rainwater leaks into them, it could leak and contaminate the environment.
Luckily, that’s why we have reservoirs to prevent this from happening, right?
However, Piney Point has suffered from multiple issues over the years. In 2006, one pond was drained and dredged material not meant to be held in the reservoir from Port Manatee was put in the gyp stack. In 2011, the plastic liner of the reservoir tore off and allowed millions of gallons of untreated wastewater to pollute nearby harbors and an already fragile ecosystem.
How can we move forward?
It is unclear how much of the remaining 303 gallons will need to be drained for engineers to stabilize the pond. However, some scientists and environmental activists believe all the wastewater may have to go, draining an amount of wastewater equivalent to a year’s worth of nutrient pollution.This could be disastrous to marine life and fuel an explosive growth of algae blooms, something Florida is becoming more familiar with over the years. Still, the extent of the damage is still unclear as officials are still testing the water and have not released new information.
However, amid dangerous environmental threats such as the one in Manatee County legislators have proposed two bills that would threaten moving toward an energy conscious future. SB 856/HB 839 seeks to limit the ability to expand into clean energy by prohibiting the replacement of gas stations with greener energy options. This means not only preventing building codes from being updated to build electric charging stations for cars, but also hindering a city’s ability to phase out fossil fuels.
Another bill — SB-1128/HB-919 — would prohibit cities from committing to 100% clean energy and forbid all current commitments cities have made towards renewable energy. Clearly, this bill would strip local officials' ability to decide what is best for their cities for conserving energy.
About 10 cities have already made a commitment to achieving 100% clean energy, including Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, Satellite Beach, Dunedin, Largo, Safety Harbor, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and South Miami.
Both pieces of legislation have the potential to greatly impact Gainesville and the greater Alachua County area, as the city has been actively involved in environmental issues over the past few years. In 2018, the City Commission approved two resolutions to reduce the city’s dependency on fossil fuels. The first was to move towards 100% renewable energy by 2045 and the second was a ban on single-use plastic-bags and styrofoam containers.
In 2012, Gainesville was ranked as one of the top 25 green cities in the United States by The Daily Beast. It also ranks as number 37 of the top bike-friendly cities.
It is clear the city of Gainesville is working hard towards a 100% clean energy future, but if Tallassee legislators get their way, that future will turn into a distant dream. Why appoint city officials if they cannot decide on what their city’s citizens need?
The solution should not be enacting legislation to prevent cities from committing to clean energy but comprehensive bills that would protect and preserve our environment. By not pursuing positive environmental legislation, we risk the chance of more environmental catastrophes like the Piney Point Reservoir leak happening again.
Sarah Hoffman is a junior at UF majoring in political science.