Buchanan tours Piney Point

PALMETTO – On Monday, Congressman Vern Buchanan toured the Piney Point reservoir area by helicopter before participating in an early afternoon press conference.

At Buchanan’s request, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers are now involved in the Piney Point response and containment efforts.

Buchanan said the EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) are now jointly in command of the situation. The Florida Department of Emergency Management and Manatee County also remain involved in the response efforts.

Before Buchanan spoke, Public Safety Director Jake Saur said state and county drone teams are flying over the site every hour on the hour and providing decision-makers with real time aerial views of the site. Saur said the drones can detect temperature changes within the berms, which indicates penetration by the contained water.

Saur also 100,000 bottles of drinking water are now available at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto for those who need it.

According to Saur, 305 households remained under an evacuation order and the Red Cross and the county are assisting displaced residents. Saur said approximately 30 people, and their pets, had taken shelter at local hotels.

On Monday, it was announced that 345 inmates at the Manatee County jail were being relocated to an undisclosed location, with approximately 720 inmates to remain at the jail after being relocated to an upper level of the facility. 

Buchanan shared his concerns about the water being discharged into Tampa Bay.

“It’s very concerning to me. I know they’re making some progress, but to see the water spewing out, it looked pretty contaminated to me,” he said, noting the Piney Point crisis impacts the entire Tampa Bay region. 

“I am concerned about the threats to public safety, homes as well as businesses, and of course marine life. I’m very concerned about the impact on that. We know what that does to our communities. I really hate to see what’s happened in terms of the algae bloom and red tide, not just here, but across the state. When I see water flowing into Tampa Bay, frankly, it makes me sick,” Buchanan said.

“I want to be hopeful and optimistic, but just the fact that we’re running water into Tampa Bay is not a great thing, but the reality of is it seems like the right thing to do right now,” he added.

“I’m not an expert, but you can see in and around where the water’s spewing in there. Around the port – I hate to say it – if you go a couple miles in each direction to me it looks like algae bloom or something, but that’s something for the scientists to determine,” Buchanan said. “I’ve been following red tide for 20 years and that could have a big impact on all of Florida.”

Regarding the unaddressed Piney Point environmental concerns that lingered for the past 20 years or so, Buchanan said, “This is something that’s being going on for too long and we’re going to come together collectively between the county, the state and the federal government to make sure we get this resolved quickly. We’re going to make sure we’ve got the resources to fix this permanently – not a patch. The company, HRK, needs to be held completely responsible.”

County Commissioner Reggie Bellamy also chairs the Port Authority. He said the Port remains fully operational and anyone conducting port business still has access.

After thanking Buchanan for bringing the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in to assist, acting County Administrator Scott Hopes addressed the retention area and the breaches in its outer berms.

Hopes estimated there were just shy of the 300 million gallons in the breached reservoir at that time. He said public officials will have a much clearer idea of that status of the breached reservoir now that the Army Corps of Engineers are on the scene.

“Up to this point, we have been relying, and DEP has been relying, on HRK’s third party engineering team. Now we have the Army Corps of Engineers in here with their engineers and we will have an additional independent evaluation,” he said.

“If we go from (pumping out) 35 million gallons a day to 100 million gallons per day, within 48 hours we will be at a situation where we will no longer have that risk of that full breach, which would send that 20-foot wall of water across,” Hopes said.

“The only pool that’s at risk is that southernmost pool where we have identified breaches where we do have some uncontrolled release of water. Regarding the breaches on the eastern wall, the most visible is at the southeast corner where you see the water coming out of the side and then flowing to the north,” he explained.

“There is an area at the top of the berm, around the middle of the eastern wall, that they recognized an extrusion of that wall pushing out about 10 feet. Thermal imaging last night from the DEP drones identified a number of sites with one concentrated site in the norther portion of eastern wall where the temperatures indicate there is water intrusion into the wall at that point,” Hopes said.