Crisis in Palmetto

Piney Point Evacuation Leaves Residents and Business Owners Scared and Anxious

"It will have lasting effects for years to come for the entire county."

By Cooper Levey-Baker April 5, 2021

An expanded emergency evacuation order affecting about 300 homes was sent out to an area around Piney Point, the former phosphate mine, on Saturday, April 3.

On Thursday evening, Brittany May received a text message telling her she and her family needed to evacuate their home immediately. May lives in Palmetto, on Bud Rhoden Road, just a half mile south of Piney Point, the site of an ongoing environmental catastrophe that threatens to flood May's home and community with toxic wastewater.

May, her husband and their two children packed what they thought they'd need for a couple days and left their home an hour later for May's mother's house, about 10 minutes to the south.

"It was pretty scary," says May. "There was no information, no knocking on the door. It just said there was an imminent threat and you need to leave."

The view from the end of Brittany May's driveway. You can see Piney Point in the distance.

Image: Brittany May

May's family is one of more than 300 households told to evacuate over the weekend because of fears that the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack could collapse entirely, which could lead to a flood with a wall of water as high as 20 feet. Phosphogypsum is a byproduct of manufacturing fertilizer from phosphate that is piled into stacks around the state of Florida.

Leaking wastewater from the Piney Point site was discovered more than a week ago. The company that owns the property, HRK Holdings, is currently dumping 22,000 gallons of wastewater per minute into Tampa Bay in an effort to reduce pressure on the stack and prevent a complete collapse. The water is a mix of saltwater, industrial waste and stormwater. It is acidic, and contains phosphorous, nitrogen and ammonia.

May says she and her neighbors have been concerned about the stack for years.

"We knew eventually it would become some sort of an issue," she says. "In Florida in general, our focus is hurricanes, but this has been in the back of our minds."

May says that even if the stack doesn't collapse and her home remains unaffected, the catastrophe could hurt her community.

"I'm worried about our home values," she says. "Home values have drastically increased over the past year. Our home value is at a good point right now. I am afraid that it's going to tank."

Jennifer Ameres and her husband, George, own Popi's Place, a restaurant on U.S. 41 that's less than two miles from Piney Point. On Saturday, one by one, customers in the restaurant began receiving text messages notifying them that they needed to evacuate. At 6 p.m., someone from the Manatee County sheriff's office stopped in and told the restaurant to close.

That the shutdown is happening just as Covid-19 vaccines are beginning to make more people comfortable dining out has been one of the hardest parts for Ameres.

"You get off a really bad year, you see light at the end of the tunnel, then, all of a sudden, everything stops again," says Ameres.

While Ameres' family doesn't live near Piney Point, many Popi's employees live in the evacuation zone, and some of them have worked at the restaurant for nearly two decades. The restaurant has a strong customer base of local residents and people who work at the nearby port and jail.

"We depend on our business to support our family, as well as our staff," says Ameres. "It's just a sad situation that they're having to dump that water into the bay. It will have lasting effects for years to come for the entire county." She worries that customers won't feel safe coming to the area. "It could be totally catastrophic for a lot of the businesses out there," she says.

May says she's committed to pressing for a permanent solution to the Piney Point crisis. "I'm going to become more of a noisemaker with this issue and try to fight to make sure something is done about it," she says. "It's been too many years, and the ball has been dropped too many times."

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