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Story Publication logo April 28, 2021

‘Holding Their Breath’: Piney Point Spill Sparks Red Tide Concerns

A sign reads "Florida Red Tide Present" in front of pedestrians walking to and from Siesta Beach in Florida.

The state of Florida recently dumped 215 million gallons of wastewater from a fertilizer plant into...

Image of beach with a blue lifeguard tower on the left of the frame and the ocean on the right. Dozens of beachgoers sit on the sand or walk through the tide. A few carry surfboards.
Beachgoers on Siesta Beach in Florida. Image by Hannah Farrow. United States, 2021.

TAMPA, Fla. — The massive spill at Piney Point has researchers “holding their breath” to see how the wastewater interacts with a present red tide along the coast of Sarasota, while lawmakers respond to the near-catastrophe in part by calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA to monitor the damage.

The details: The state dumped 215 million gallons of wastewater from the Piney Point fertilizer plant straight into Tampa Bay between March 30-April 8. The discharge contains nitrogen and phosphorus, and too much of either can cause algae to grow faster than without.

Simultaneously on the coast of Sarasota at Siesta Key, a harmful algal bloom, better known as Florida’s red tide, has been naturally forming over the past few weeks, according to data published by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The bloom is made up of Karenia brevis algae, which scientists say is a slow-growing organism that can spread via winds and tides. The bloom discovered at Siesta Beach a few weeks ago has now been detected as of Thursday at Longboat Key, which is about 10 miles north from the original location.

One of the biggest concerns is if or how the Piney Point wastewater will affect the red tide.

“It's just far north of us that the Piney Point discharge stations don't fall within Sarasota’s,” said Rep. Fiona McFarland (R-Sarasota). Still, she’s been in contact with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the FWC. Both organizations say there’s no need for concern yet, but “we’re so sensitive to red tide here,” McFarland said, given that just as some businesses were finally starting to recover from a bad bloom in 2018, the coronavirus hit.

The spill is roughly 25 miles north of the current bloom, and scientists are closely monitoring whether the wastewater will interact with it. Researchers at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science created a model that’s forecasting the dispersal of the wastewater, and the Red Tide Institute at Mote Marine Laboratory is researching ways on how to mitigate blooms.

“[The current red tide] is not interacting with Piney Point yet, but everybody is kind of holding their breath,” said Cynthia Heil, the director of the institute, which is located in Sarasota.

It’s unusual to have a red tide during the month of April, as most blooms form and dissipate during the winter months, according to NOAA oceanographer Rick Stumpf. From December to March, cold wind fronts from the north blow blooms down past the Florida Keys, but this year, “the North winds stopped early,” Stumpf said, causing the red tide to have “sloshed around” and “crept up” to Sarasota.

The backstory: This isn’t the first time Piney Point spilled. In 2001, after fertilizer company Mulberry Corp. filed for bankruptcy, the business abandoned the plant and left the state of Florida to dispose of 1.9 billion liters of phosphate fertilizer waste, according to a Marine Pollution Bulletin study published in 2011. At first, DEP authorized releasing some of the waste into Bishop Harbor at a rate of 1.9 million liters per day.

Researchers, including Heil, monitored how the wastewater interacted with blooms — including K. brevis. The findings show that the spill “did not provide the conditions needed for growth by this species,” although other harmful algae blooms grew quite well.

The state later dumped 2 billion liters of the waste — a number that grew due to record rainfall — about 40 miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico.

The DEP has yet to comment on why the state authorized dumping into Tampa Bay as opposed to dumping offshore like they did in 2003.

Local impact: Red tide warning signs greet beachgoers as they walk onto Siesta Beach. And at their stands, lifeguards hand-wrote similar warnings, like “slight respiratory distress [due] to red tide in area.”

Heil said it only takes low concentrations of algae to cause respiratory irritation if the winds blow from the water and directly onto the beach. On April 12, the FWC collected samples deemed “medium,” which contain up to 1,000,000 K. breviscells per liter. Siesta Beach has since tested “low,” but higher concentrations have been found at Lido Key and Longboat key. Plus, higher concentrations can cause more severe conditions to those with sensitive lungs or asthma.

Sarasota County lifeguard chief Scott Montgomery has been with the county for 38 years — and has seen several red tides. All lifeguards are equipped with three types of respiratory equipment they can use at their discretion, including an N95 mask and a respirator. The lifeguards also work closely with the Mote Marine Laboratory and update twice daily, a website that informs the public of beach conditions, including red tide. When a red tide is present, the lifeguards fly a red flag, Montgomery said.

“I've been doing this for so long and have had different bouts of dealing with it, so my system is used to it. I don't get the coughing, but the nose definitely twitches,” Montgomery said.

As for the Piney Point dumping in Bishop Harbor, the DEP has not posted any signs or warnings around the state parks that surround the harbor, and researchers are still monitoring the impact of the wastewater on the local environments.

In mid-April, people were seen boating, fishing and hiking where millions of liters of wastewater were dumped.

“Although the discharged water was very high in nutrients, it was not radioactive,” said Betty Staugler, a NOAA harmful algal bloom liaison. “However, anglers and shellfish harvesters should always use their best judgment when considering what to keep and what to throw back. Any time they are fishing in waters that don’t look right, or smell right, or the animal is not acting normal, they should err on the side of caution.”

The DEP has also yet to comment on the water safety.

What lawmakers are doing: Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) is “very” concerned about the environmental impacts from the red tide and wastewater spill. “The environment is so important in Florida, not only because of the beauty it provides for our state, but how it helps our economy,” said Crist, whose district includes St. Petersburg, Largo and Clearwater.

At a hearing on April 15, Crist asked NOAA for an update on the organization’s monitoring of the Piney Point spill and its impact on this summer’s bloom season after he sent a letter two weeks ago asking for help. While NOAA said they won’t speculate on the spill’s potential of worsening red tides, they’re continuing to monitor the impacts and are providing weekly conditions reports. Crist also sent a letter to NASA asking for monitoring and imaging from the skies.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he’d hold owners of the land, HRK Holdings, responsible for the spill. HRK, however, sought to place the blame on the state. But to prevent yet another spill from Piney Point, DeSantis redirected $15.4 million to pre-treat the wastewater and to permanently close the phosphate waste site.

“We need all hands on deck,” Crist said, who may challenge DeSantis in 2022. “When you have a situation like this, the idea initially is not to be pointing fingers but stopping the problem, and stopping it in its tracks. It looks like maybe we got to the point. I hope so.”


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