Toxic wastewater reservoir in Manatee County, FL on the verge of catastrophic failure

This could become a major news story soon. Hundreds of residents of Manatee County, Florida have been ordered to evacuate their homes over Easter weekend over fears that a wastewater pond could collapse at any time and cause a catastrophic, uncontrolled release of wastewater.

316 households, as well as Manatee County Jail, are within the full evacuation zone. And they’re not fully evacuating the jail, at least not yet.

I can’t understand how such a dangerous situation has been allowed to develop, its like they just put all this crap into a large pond and left it without any plan to deal with it.

It’s Florida.

There is a long and complicated history behind the phosphogypsum (calcium sulfate hydrate) stacks. Some of them were created during a period when regulations were much more lax. Some of them were created because the industry is “critical”* to the local (and state economy). Some of the slag can be repurposed, but due to the geology of Florida’s Bone Valley (where Manatee is), the initial material is radioactive enough that it can’t be repurposed. So, it’s stacked. In giant mounds with lakes in the top (think volcanic caldera). The lake is used to contain the liquid waste.

As with most things, these structures are built with varying quality and based on a certain set of assumptions. I personally suspect that the recent spate of hurricanes and heavy rainfall events has invalidated some of those assumptions resulting in an increase in adverse events.

As for why it’s been allowed to persist, the answer, as always, is $$$$$. You’re talking about (quick Google) around 1 billion tons of dirt/sand with billions of gallons of (slightly) radioactive, toxic wastewater. Whatcha gonna do with it? Not to mention the engineering challenges involved in safely dismantling a small mountain with a lake on top.

The bigger question is why it’s being allowed to GROW, but that again is $$$$$. Are we (the collective we) ready to pay a lot more for food so that some folks in South Florida don’t have these problems?

Honestly any area that has large scale mining operations faces similar problems and, I suspect, for similar reasons. So it’s not JUST Florida. We’re just in the news this week.

* I have a personal problem with this as it’s often code for “private profit, public expense”.

Is it near to where people live? (It sounds awful!)

If so, how was that ever a good idea?

When in history was, ‘We’ll just make a big stack!’, ever a successful solution anyway?

Holy cow, there’s 3.5 billion gallons of water in that lake, and they’re pumping out just 33 million gallons a day. I don’t see how this doesn’t collapse, though obviously incrementally less water is less pressure on the dam holding it back.

And from that article, officialdom seems confused whether the wastewater is radioactive, which means it is.

I think the 3.5 billion figure on the article is a typo. Every other article I’ve seen says 300-400 million gallons.

Wiki seems to agree:

And wow, this place is an accident not waiting to happen:


Radioactive can be a weird term when you are dealing with dirt. When I was drilling wells on the western slope of Colorado the law specified a minimum amount or radioactivity before we were allowed to bury our cuttings. The normal procedure was to mix our cuttings 3:1 with the dirt we were digging out of the hole to help absorb some moisture and minimize how much dirt we had to haul to the land fill. Once we tested for radioactivity we were about double the legal standard. After two or three failures I started doing research into why we were failing and the end result was that the native dirt was triple the radio active standard and our cuttings were actually cleaning up the native dirt.

This situation seems reminiscent of Aberfan in Wales.

More like this one.

Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

No wait - it’s EXACTLY like that.

The concept of environmental justice comes into play here:

TL,DR: we have a long history of concentrating our pollution in/near poor neighborhoods because they typically lacked the resources to fight back. We’ve become more aware of this inequity lately and are trying to be more fair to folks in poorer neighborhoods, but we have a very long way to go.

It just has to be successful until the people who made the stack are dead and gone. This is why many places have groundwater contamination, and why there are coal ash ponds all over the place.

The first thing I thought of when I heard this story was the Pig waste “lagoons” a few years ago. They also threatened to overflow and wreck structures and contaminate water supplies

Yes, that’s exactly what was done - a company put wastewater in a big pond then went out of business so no plan was left to deal with it.

Thanks to a certain… ideology which will remain unnamed in this post that believes government should be so minimal that you can drown its remnants in a bathtub and the belief that the “free market” magically solves all problems, no one else took responsibility for it, either.

Then one day the pond full of toxic sludge is discovered to have sprung a leak (or two, or three…) and everyone is thrown into full panic mode.

We do have the Superfund to deal with this sort of problem, but due to the popularity of the above mentioned ideology that will not be named there are so goddamned many of these sites that we’ll probably never catch up with them all.

So… once again profits are privatized and problems are socialized.


In general, people prefer to live in a certain proximity to where they work. Operations like that require human workers, who tend to settle nearby and a town grows up around them. Even after the business goes out of business such towns tend to persist.

Also, sometimes resources are located inconveniently close to already established human habitations. It can be hard to move a city just because there’s something valuable in the ground underneath it.

Bananas are slightly radioactive, just about everything is so if someone goes looking for radiation they’ll find it in some degree. The question is how radioactive, with a side helping of “how long is the half life?” Even if it was a little radioactive for comfort 20 years ago the ensuing time would result in some reduction of radioactivity, possibly bringing it into the range of “harmlessly small”.

The above is speculation as I have not researched this particular situation and don’t know enough about it to really have actual facts on hand.

Like Brumadinho in that it involves liquid. Like Aberfan in that it involves mine waste (which Brumadinho also did). While Aberfan did not have a discreet lake in the tailings, it was rain that liquefied the mountain that lead to that disaster, so they all involve fluids.

Bottom line, we really need to get better at managing mine waste. And other forms of waste.

No problem that will occur more than four years in the future will ever be addressed, let alone solved, by a politician.

This all leads me to wonder this: In a big densely populated city like NY or LA, how do they deal with the amount of human waste (to be blunt, shit) that is produced? How is it all ultimately disposed of?

It varies. Some places literally just dump it into a river or lake or the ocean. That wouldn’t work so well for NYC or LA due to size and population. Really big cities have sewage treatment these days, even a lot of not-so-big cities, where the sewage including human waste is put into tanks and through a variety of techniques (bacterial digestion, UV light, chemicals, etc.) rendered much less harmful before being discharged back into the environment. The leftover sludge may wind up in a landfill, or, if you live in Boston, even be turned into fertilizer although they use terms like “biosolids” rather than “bacteria digested human shit”. At the time of this writing apparently Bay State Fertilizer is out of stock, which makes me wonder if the City of Boston is constipated or something. You’d think there would be an ample supply of the raw material.

Higher demand from home gardeners. One of many hobbies enhanced by the pandemic. The supply is more or less fixed, since the same people are going to be producing at pretty much the same rate.

This waste problems goes back to the 60’s, and there have been quite a few Democrats in power in Florida between then and now. The biggest difficulty is that there’s really not much to be done about it. You can pump the material out, but you ultimately have to put it somewhere and it’s a very large amount to deal with. Everyone wants a permanent solution but nobody seems to have a good answer, or at least they do not agree on one.

The thing is, the Piney Point plant closed down two decades ago, about the time when Republican power in Florida solidified. And the problem was known since at least the 80’s.