In April 2021, Florida was staring down an immediate environmental calamity. The Piney Point phosphogypsum stack just south of Tampa had failed and had begun to spill millions of gallons of toxic, nutrient-rich, possibly radioactive wastewater into Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
This spelled imminent doom for local coastal habitats, including mangroves, seagrass beds and oyster reefs, as well as countless aquatic animal species ranging from manatees and sea turtles to dolphins, otters and gamefish.
For several days, Piney Point had put local neighborhoods and human life at risk—at one point there was a fear of a total collapse of the Piney Point facility, which could have released a 20-foot wall of water into people’s homes in adjoining neighborhoods.
Fortunately, that human risk abated but by the time the breach was plugged, hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic materials had already spilled into the Bay. The true environmental catastrophe had just begun to unfold.
From the get-go, the Piney Point disaster triggered an all-hands-on-deck response and local groups have been on the water working tirelessly to determine impacts to our coasts. Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and Suncoast Waterkeeper were immediately on the water and shedding a spotlight on what was happening at Piney Point for the world to see. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program and Sarasota Bay Estuary Program rapidly initiated data collection, testing and monitoring of water in the Bay as a result of the spill. Researchers from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg have been gathering data and conducting important modeling to determine where the toxic water will go and what impacts it will have.
Ocean Conservancy responded by teaming up with the University of Florida’s Center for Coastal Solutions to conduct flagship isotopic testing to gauge the full scope of impacts on wildlife from the Piney Point spill and to determine impacts on macroalgae and harmful algal blooms such as red tide.
Our partnership with the University of Florida supplements and enhances the critically important data collection already being done by the estuary programs and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and will fill in gaps in data so that Florida can have a clear picture of the impacts of the Piney Point spill on the marine environment.
But there is so much more to learn from Piney Point—we need for this event to shape how we respond to inevitable similar events that will arise in the future. Florida needs to be ready. Here are what I see as the most important lessons learned so far:
1. Tropical weather is getting more frequent and more severe and will cause more toxic spills like the one at Piney Point
Hurricanes, tropical storms, tropical depressions—even a really bad afternoon rainstorm—can cause phosphogypsum stacks to be breached. The warmer the gulf and ocean, the worse the weather; the worse the weather the more likely the spill.
We need to clean up sites like Piney Point, and we need to protect and buffer our coastlines from rising seas. This means investing in green infrastructure—things like mangroves, coral reefs, dunes, seagrass flats and oyster beds—alongside investments in smart development, adaptive coastal management and resilient gray infrastructure. Floridians need resilience to become their mantra because a rising sea won’t wait for us to get it together and we, as Floridians, want to preserve the iconic coastal environment that we all so love.
2. Responding to environmental tragedies is not enough—We need to be prepared in advance for them
Governor DeSantis pledged more than $15 million to clean up the Piney Point facility, and the state legislature has put another $100 million in the annual budget to support cleanup efforts. That’s great—it’s money that needs to be spent to address this particular problem. But it’s responsive in nature, and it’s like pointing a squirt gun at a house fire—the real costs associated with cleaning up Piney Point are closer to $200 million. Further, there are nearly two dozen similar phosphogypsum facilities in Florida, and that doesn’t take into account the litany of other components of the human environment that can fail and threaten Florida’s ecosystems, whether from agricultural, heavy industry, sewer or septic.
We need proactivity in Florida and we need preparation in the face of the environmental threats that are coming down the pike.
3. Floridians from all walks of life and across the political spectrum need to band together and fight for Florida’s ocean and coasts
The response to Piney Point was truly heartening, but that’s just a taste of the Florida-wide response that we need. This time, it was Tampa Bay; but there’s also a tragedy unfolding in the Indian River Lagoon with seagrass die-offs and manatee mortalities; there have been fish kills in Biscayne Bay within the past year; and FWC commissioners have had to shut down the iconic Apalachicola oyster fishery in the panhandle to allow it to recover due to lack of fresh water flowing from Alabama and Georgia.
Everywhere you look, threats are imminent—and we need Floridians from all walks of life, regardless of your party affiliation or your political identity, to step up and speak up for Florida’s ocean and coasts.
nsuringhe Magic of