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5 environmental stories that have impacted Tampa Bay in 2021. What’s next?

5 environmental stories that have impacted Tampa Bay in 2021. What’s next?

Despite the persistent coronavirus pandemic and back-to-back crises that threatened the region’s waterway, the environment dominated the headlines in Tampa Bay this spring and summer.

Some headlines felt familiar, as old problems returned this year.

This is a reminder of what has happened and a guideline for what you should be looking out for in 2022.

Piney Point

Aerial drone image from Piney Point taken April 14 from Palmetto.
Aerial drone image taken from Piney Point, April 14th from Palmetto

Piney Point used to be home to a fertilizer plant. Today, however, the only visible signs of it are phosphogypsum piles, a radioactive byproduct from the industry, that loom over the landscape near Manatee-Hillsborough County line.

Workers for HRK Holdings discovered a leak in a plastic – lined wastewater pond within a pile in late March. Engineers were concerned about the possibility of a total collapse as the liner was ripped.

The state allowed HRK holdings to dump contaminated water into Port Manatee Bay to relieve pressure on the phosphogypsum tower. It is not radioactive enough for people to work near it, but still strictly regulated by government. The company pumped nearly a year worth of nitrogen into one portion of the estuary in less than two week.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, backed by wildlife experts, marine business owners and politicians, talks about the states overall effort to combat the recent Red Tide outbreak plaguing Tampa Bay waters on July 21.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is backed by wildlife experts and marine business owners, and talks about the state’s overall effort to fight the Red Tide outbreak that plagued Tampa Bay waters on July 21. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

The Piney Point discharge contaminated other areas of the bay. The fuel for algae is nitrogen. Scientists believe that the pollution contributed to the toxic Red Tide that struck Tampa Bay weeks later. (Read more below).

Fury was widespread from long-serving charter captains to local politicians to scientists and waterfront residents. For decades, the Piney Point property has been leaking and spilling at its waters edge. The threat remained long after the plant was closed, even though state environmental regulators ignored or ignored warning signs.

HRK Holdings was joined by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to continue fighting to prevent Piney Point’s release of more wastewater. This continued for the remainder of the year, even after the liner was removed. Workers treated the water and disposed it before the ponds were flooded by summer rains.

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So far, there have not been any major discharges. The site is not yet fully closed.

Red Tide

City employees work together to remove a dead Goliath grouper from the waters at Crisp Park on July 14 in St. Petersburg. It was likely poisoned by the Red Tide bloom that sent tons of dead marine life washing onto the city's shores in 2021.
On July 14, St. Petersburg’s Crisp Park, city employees worked together in removing a dead Goliath Grouper. It was most likely poisoned by the Red Tide bloom, which in 2021 brought tons of dead marine life to the city’s shores. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Around the Fourth of July, dead fish floated into St. Petersburg’s waters. For weeks, large, stinky plumes drifted through Tampa Bay before reaching the gulf. Maggots crawled among concrete seawalls and fish scales. Shrimp boats circled waterfront parks, netting carcasses.

In 50 years, a toxic Red Tide bloom hadn’t reached this high into the bay.

Pinellas County, the epicenter of dead sea life, collected 1,859 tonnes of debris and sea life, according to Tony Fabrizio, spokesperson. The algae was not only a threat to marine mammals, but also to humans. People reported breathing difficulties at beaches, which fueled fears of a drop tourism as businesses recovered from the heights of the pandemic.

Red Tides grip slowed down after several weeks, but blooms concentrations continued to be visible off Pinellas all through the summer, and into the fall. Still, visitors kept coming.

The effects of Red Tide can be seen at Pass-a-Grille Beach on Sept. 15, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of fish lie dead on the beach.
Red Tide’s effects can be seen at Pass-a-Grille Beach, Sept. 15, where hundreds or even thousands of dead fish lay on the shore. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Tampa Bay Times ]

Why was the bloom so severe? Scientists believe that winds caused the bay to become salty, and that the bay was left without rain. Piney Point’s pollution was almost certain to have played a role in providing the organism with a lot of nitrogen.

The toxic algae attracted Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to Tampa Bay with top state environmental officials who promised money to help cover the cleanup of the county.

Fabrizio estimates that Pinellas costs $3,024,625.44.

Dying seagrass

Sheila Scolaro, public outreach specialist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, examines a sample of manatee grass while collecting data on algae and seagrass in the shallows off Piney Point on April 7 in Palmetto. Scolaro was working to establish a baseline for the existing species in the water in order to create a long term record of the effects, if any, to exposure to nutrients from the discharge of millions of gallons of wastewater from the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
Sheila Scolaro (public outreach specialist, Tampa Bay Estuary Program) examines a manatee sprig while collecting data on the algae and seagrass in the shallows of Piney Point on April 7. Scolaro was trying to establish a baseline of the species present in the water to create a long-term record of the effects of nutrients from the discharge of millions upon millions of gallons wastewater from the Piney Point phosphate plants. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Tampa Bay is not only the region’s namesake, but also drives tourism and livelihoods. It all depends on seagrass which keeps the bay healthy, and marine life thriving.

Despite years of progress, bays seagrass coverage failed to reach its key goal of 2021. A regular survey showed a 16 percent decline, or 6,350 acres lost.

The estuary is a national treasure. The estuary’s horseshoe is a mix of fresh-and saltwater, providing a home to a wide range of marine life, including crabs, snook, dolphins, and other species. The bay was an embarrassment in its day. It looked like a rotting dish, choked by pollution. The bay is now considered an environmental success story because of the numerous restoration projects that were undertaken over many decades and the improved supervision of sewage disposal.

Brian Rosello, 44, head of the Florida Recreational Fishing Union, speaks during the Rally to Save Florida From Red Tide on July 25 in Tampa.
Brian Rosello, 44-year-old head of Florida Recreational Fishing Union, speaks at the Rally to Save Florida From Red Tide held in Tampa on July 25, 2017.

[ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

However, environmental leaders are concerned about the long-term outlook of the seagrass, given recent Red Tides and Piney Point discharges.

Seagrass is a keystone of an ecosystem. It provides food and shelter for animals. Its health is a sign of how the environment is doing.

Particular concern is Old Tampa Bay, which is located near Feather Sound, Pinellas County. This area is home to an algae species called PyrodiniumIt is believed to be clouding water, preventing seagrass from getting the sunlight it needs to thrive. This is the main cause of much of the overall loss. Scientists say that pollution from fertilizer runoff and sewer spillage can cause too much nutrients in the water, which helps algae grow.

According to the latest survey, 34,000 acres of seagrass were still present in the bay. This is significantly more than it was at its lowest point. Environmentalists warn against the possibility of a sudden backslide that could reverse years worth of hard work.

Climate change

Egmont Key off the coast of Fort DeSoto in Tampa Bay. In 2019, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as one of the most threatened historic properties in the state because of climate change and rising seas.
Egmont Key, off the coast from Fort DeSoto in Tampa Bay. The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation declared it one of the most vulnerable historic properties in the State due to climate change, rising seas, in 2019.

Last year, Florida lawmakers approved a series of sea level rise policies called Always Ready. This was a priority for Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor). These new laws are a departure from the status quo in Tallahassees during the previous decade when climate change was rarely heard seriously at the Capitol.

The Legislature of 2021 directed money to flood infrastructure projects, planning work, and called for a research hub for flooding at the University of South Florida. They also ordered a vulnerability analysis for the state that includes sea level rise.

The governor announced in December a three-year plan to provide $270 million in state funding to flood defense projects. This includes the raising of parts of an Oldsmar water treatment plant and the expansion of a natural shoreline bulwark at Maximo Park, St. Petersburg.

Manatees

Two dead, emaciated adult manatees recovered from Brevard County are prepared for necropsy at the state's Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab in March.
Two adult manatees are dead and in poor health from Brevard County. They were taken to the state’s Marine Mamal Pathobiology Lab in March. [ Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ]

This was the deadliest year for Florida manatees, with over 1,000 people killed. Many of these manatees were starving in Indian River Lagoon, on Florida’s east coast, due to a lack seagrass. The death zone is located 120 miles from Tampa Bay. However, the pain has spread across the peninsula.

Manatees have been designated as a threatened animal. They were previously listed as endangered in 2017. Some politicians and advocates are calling for them once again to be listed as endangered to encourage more support and stricter oversight.

ZooTampa is one of the many critical care facilities that have stepped in to assist sick manatees. Their pools are already full. Clearwater Marine Aquarium plans to build its own rehabilitation centre.

Tampa Bay did not spare the manatees. Red Tide was the cause of their deaths this summer.

The northern Indian River Lagoon, which is the epicenter for the starvation crisis and a stark warning to the rest, is a frightening reminder about the fragility estuaries that have been harmed by pollution. In the last decade, thousands of acres have been killed by algal blooms that were fueled in part from nutrient-laden land runoff. Manatees gather in the lagoon every winter due to warm discharges from a plant.

Next steps

A manatee surfaces for a breath of air off a boardwalk at Tampa Electrics award-winning Manatee Viewing Center on Nov. 1 in Apollo Beach. After being closed for 19 months, the viewing center opened for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
A manatee takes a deep breath off the boardwalk of the Manatee Viewing Center at Tampa Electrics, Apollo Beach. It was seen on Nov. 1, 2011. After being closed for 19 years, the viewing center reopened for the first-time since the COVID-19 pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Manatees

It’s winter again and state wildlife officials will spend most of 2022 trying not to see another mass die-off in Indian River Lagoon. Manatees will be fed lettuce by hand as part of this effort to prevent them from starving. The operation will be limited to the East Coast lagoon.

Manatees have plenty of seagrass to eat in other areas, such as Tampa Bay. It is not recommended to feed wildlife as it can lead to animals becoming dependent on humans. People shouldn’t feed manatees in Florida. It could be considered harassment and therefore illegal.

The state expects that manatees will continue to die, even with additional rescue teams in place and backup feeding. It will take years for seagrass acreage to be restored. As temperatures drop, manatees will continue to return to warm waters around a power station in Brevard County. They will not have enough food.

Climate change and Tallahassee

Florida’s elected leaders begin to plan for the effects of climate change. But they haven’t entertained bills that would limit the emissions from fossil fuels that cause global warming.

Environmentalists believe the state is only trying to adapt sea level rise to its costs without addressing the root causes. The Legislature passed laws last year that critics claim will make it harder for cities and towns to pursue clean energy.

This is a new battleline on climate and it doesn’t appear that Tallahassee will soon move. DeSantis made the flood infrastructure plan public in December. He was also asked about how he would tackle climate change. The Republican governor mentioned high gasoline prices as an example. Complex supply issues cannot be explained solely through energy policiesAnd he said: What I’ve found is that people use global warming as a pretext to do all the left-wing things they want to do when they talk about it.

DeSantis said that Florida is a flood-prone place, and that we do have hurricanes. Let’s not react every time something like this happens. Let’s be proactive and build strong infrastructure.

Tampa Bays future

Gary Raulerson, an ecologist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, left, collects a bag containing samples of algae from Sheila Scolaro, public outreach specialist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, right, while analyzing algae and seagrass in the shallows off Piney Point on April 7 in Palmetto. The team was working to establish a baseline for the existing species in the water in order to create a long-term record of the effects, if any, from exposure to nutrients from the discharge of millions of gallons of wastewater from the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
Gary Raulerson (ecologist, Tampa Bay Estuary Program), left, collects a bag of algae samples from Sheila Scolaro. Sheila is a public outreach specialist with Tampa Bay Estuary Program. The bag was collected while Raulerson was analysing algae and seagrass near Piney Point, April 7, in Palmetto. The team was trying to establish a baseline of existing species in the water to establish a long-term record, if any. This would allow them to determine the effects of nutrients from the discharge of millions upon millions of gallons from the Piney Point phosphate factory. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

As the region moves further from the Piney Point dumps and the summer Red Tide more scientists will continue monitoring the bay for long-term environmental impacts.

See Also

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission temporarily banned anglers from keeping certain species of fish caught in the bay. However, that ban was lifted in October. Some restrictions are still in place in Southwest Florida, following the 2017-19 Red Tide Bloom that devastated the coast and raised concerns about long-term declines of fish populations.

Local leaders plan to conduct another survey of the seagrass coverage in Southwest Florida later this year. In Tampa Bay, more frequent monitoring will continue. Florida’s health is a concern.

Will Piney Point finally disappear?

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is now suing Piney Points’ owner, HRK Holdings. As a court-appointed receiver, an independent Tampa lawyer manages the site day-to-day.

Manatee County was granted a permit this month to construct a well deep beneath the ground. This will allow Piney Point’s wastewater to be pumped to a depth of 3,000 feet below the surface, so that the ponds can be permanently closed. Local environmental groups and critics have tried to stop or slow down the process, fearing it would threaten the Floridan Aquifer’s water supply.

Work continues to prevent stacks from bursting again. These efforts will likely continue next summer as another hurricane season begins and increases Piney Points’ threat to the environment.

Red Tide coverage

Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some suggestions.

Is seafood safe?Here are some ways that Red Tide influences what you eat.

Can I go fishing?The state has placed restrictions on saltwater fishery.

Pine Point: Red Tide may be fuelled by environmental disasters

Red Tide resources

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission maintains a website.It tracks where Red Tide was detected.

Florida Poison Control Centers provide a 24/7 toll-free hotline for reporting illnesses, including Red Tide exposure.

Call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-636-0511 to report dead fish to Tampa Bay.Online filing a report on a fish kill.

Call the Mayors Action Center in St. Petersburg at 727-893-7111, or use St. Petersburgs.Site at seeclickfix.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is the county’s tourism wing and offers an online beach dashboard at www.beachesupdate.com.

How to stay safe in the water

Do not swim with dead fish.

Red Tide blooms should be avoided by those with chronic respiratory conditions. If you feel that Red Tide is affecting your health, leave.

You should not harvest or eat mollusks from the area. Fillets of healthy fish must be raised with clean water and the guts should be thrown out.

Pet owners must keep their pets out of the water and away from dead fish.

Residents who live near the beach should shut their windows and use air conditioners with appropriate filters.

Protect yourself at the beach by wearing a mask

Source: Florida Department of Health Pinellas County

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