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Florida wastewater discharge threatens birds, fish, manatees

Reddish Egret. Photo by Sandy Scott

This week’s discharge of more than 200 million gallons of wastewater from an old Florida phosphate plant into Tampa Bay threatens an Important Bird Area, fish, several species of wading birds and shorebirds, and the state’s iconic manatees.

Late last week, officials feared the catastrophic collapse of a phosphogypsum stack retention pond holding 480 million gallons of water at the Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County, north of the city of Bradenton. The pond held a mix of seawater, rainwater, and wastewater from the fertilizer industry. To prevent a collapse, workers began controlled releases into the bay of 22,000 gallons per minute. The releases slowed on Thursday and stopped by 5 p.m., although releases were expected to restart, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

“The situation at Piney Point is tragic after so much restoration progress has been made in Tampa Bay in the last two decades,” says Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. “We’re worried about the impacts to the bay’s nesting and foraging wading and shorebirds — of which we have been the guardians for the last 80 years. As a result of legal protections and sound management, species like the Reddish Egret have returned to Tampa Bay after being extirpated by poachers for the plume trade in the early 1900s. Their persistence is not guaranteed, however. Threats to water quality and sea level rise could erase these hard-won gains for both the bird and human residents of Tampa Bay.”

An Audubon-designated Important Bird Area known as Cockroach Bay-Terra Ceia lies due west of the Piney Point pond. It covers 3,500 acres over several parks and sanctuaries.

Audubon’s description of the site says that islands in the IBA “support significant colonial waterbird rookeries, and Washburn Sanctuary contains one of the two most diverse rookeries in Florida. Mangrove forests support some Mangrove Cuckoos, which approach their northern range limits within this IBA.”

Species in the region include Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Brown Pelican, Glossy and White Ibises, and Reddish and Snowy Egrets.

Experts say the pumping of wastewater into the bay was “like dumping 50,000 bags of fertilizer into the bay all at once.” Elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the bay could cause algal blooms that would then kill fish in the bay.

Phosphogypsum plants also contain radioactive waste. This article from the Center for Biological Diversity explains:

“Radium-226, found in phosphogypsum, has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life. In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc.”

Perhaps most concerning is that the Piney Point site is just one phosphogypsum plant in the Sunshine State. Two dozens others can be found in Florida.

“This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than 1 billion tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now. Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production.”

WFLA: How manatees could be affected by the wastewater discharge

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at

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