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Five environmental stories that impacted Tampa Bay in 2021, and what’s next in 2022
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Five environmental stories that impacted Tampa Bay in 2021, and what’s next in 2022

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 of Piney Point taken April 14, 2014 from Palmetto

Piney Point was once home to a fertilizer company. However, today, there are no signs of it. Instead, phosphogypsum stacks loom over the landscape, a radioactive byproduct.

Late March saw workers from HRK Holdings discover a leak inside a plastic-lined wastewater tank. The liner was ripped and engineers were concerned about a total collapse. Hundreds of millions gallons of polluted waters could have flooded into the homes and businesses surrounding Tampa Bay.

The state granted permission to HRK Holdings to dump contaminated waters into the bay through Port Manatee in order to ease the pressure on the phosphogypsum pile. Although not radioactive enough that people cannot work near it, the government strictly regulates its use. 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 released contaminants that flowed to the bay’s other sections. 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. It affected everyone from long-time charter captains to local politicians, scientists, and waterfront residents. For decades, the Piney Point property has been leaking and spilling at its waters edge. State environmental regulators failed to recognize warning signs and allowed the threat to continue long after the plant was shut down.

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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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, huge, stinky plumes drifted across Tampa Bay and out to the Gulf. Maggots crawled through concrete seawalls and fish scales, crawling between them. Shrimp boats circled the waterfront parks, netting carcasses.

In 50 years, the bay had not seen a toxic Red Tide bloom.

Pinellas County was the epicenter and collected 1,859 tons dead sea life and debris. The algae also posed a threat for marine animals. People reported breathing difficulties at beaches, which fueled fears of a decline tourism after the peak of the algal 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 ]

What caused the bloom to explode? Scientists believe the bloom was caused by winds blowing an existing Red Tide in this manner. The bay was then left in a salty condition that allowed the algae to grow. Piney Point pollution almost certainly played a part, providing a large amount of nitrogen for the organisms to eat.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was also in Tampa Bay with top environmental officials from the state, who promised to send money for the county’s cleanup.

According to Fabrizio, the total cost of Pinellas is $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 is a public outreach specialist for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. She examines a sample manatee grass and collects data on algae in the shallows off Piney Point, April 7, in Palmetto. 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 more than just the region’s name. It also drives tourism and livelihoods. It all depends upon seagrass, however, which keeps the bay thriving and healthy.

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 has been called a national treasure. The estuary is a national treasure. It has a horseshoe that mixes fresh- and saltwater, and provides a home for a variety of marine life such as crabs, snook, and dolphins. 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.


Some environmental leaders were concerned about the future of seagrass because of recent Red Tides, Piney Point discharges, and the latest seagrass loss.

Seagrass is an ecosystem cornerstone, providing food and shelter to animals. Its health is an indicator of the overall environment’s health.

A section of Old Tampa Bay, near Feather Sound in Pinellas County is particularly concerning. Here, an algal species called “Algae” is found. PyrodiniumThis is believed to be clouding the water, denying seagrass the sunlight it requires to survive. This area is responsible in large part for the loss. Researchers say that fertilizer runoff and sewer pollution can pollute the water, which in turn encourages algae to proliferate.

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. It was listed by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the most endangered historic properties in the state due to climate change and rising seas in 2019.

Florida lawmakers approved a set of sea level rise measures last year under the name Always Ready. This was a priority of 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 a three year plan in December that will provide $270 million of state money for dozens flood defense projects. These projects include raising parts of an Oldsmar water treatment facility and expanding Maximo Park’s natural shoreline bulwark in St. Petersburg.


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

This was the worst year ever for Florida manatees. More than 1,000 were killed. Many of them are starving in Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast because they lack seagrass. Although Tampa Bay is 120 miles away from the epicenter of the crisis, the pain has been felt 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 hopes to build its own rehabilitation facility.

Tampa Bay did not spare the manatees. Red Tide decimated them this summer.

The northern Indian River Lagoon is at the center of the starvation crisis. This is a scary warning to the rest. In the last decade, thousands of acres have been killed by algal blooms that were fueled by nutrients from the land. Manatees gather in the lagoon every winter due to warm discharges from a plant.


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 swoops down to take a deep breath from a boardwalk at the Manatee Viewing Center, Tampa Electrics’ award-winning Manatee Viewing Center. This was Nov. 1, in Apollo Beach. After being closed for 19 years, the viewing center reopened for the first-time since the COVID-19 pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]


It is winter again. State wildlife officials will spend the first part of 2022 trying avoid another spike in mass deaths in the Indian River Lagoon. To prevent manatees from starving, part of that effort will include hand feeding manatees lettuce. The operation will take place only around the affected area of the lagoon on the East Coast.

In other places, including Tampa Bay, manatees often have plenty of seagrass to consume. It is not a good idea to give food to wildlife, as it can make them dependent on humans. People shouldn’t feed manatees in Florida. It could be considered harassment and therefore illegal.

The state expects that more manatees will die even with additional rescue teams and support 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 fossil fuel emission that causes 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 spring that critics claim will make clean energy more difficult for cities.

This is a new battleline on climate and it doesn’t appear that Tallahassee will soon move. DeSantis was asked about climate change when he announced the flood infrastructure plan in December. The Republican governor mentioned high gas prices as a reason for his decision to run for office. 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 just react to every storm, but let’s also 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 is an ecologist at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. He collects samples from Sheila Scolaro (public outreach specialist with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program), while analysing algae and seagrass in the shallows of Piney Point on April 7. The team was trying to establish a baseline of existing species in the water to create a long-term record, if any. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Scientists will continue to monitor the bay’s environmental effects as the area moves further away from the Piney Point dump, summer Red Tide, and other pollution sources.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had to temporarily ban anglers’ ability to keep certain species in the bay. This ban was lifted in October. There are still some restrictions 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 will also conduct another survey on seagrass coverage in Southwest Florida in the coming year. More frequent monitoring will continue in Tampa Bay. Florida will be affected by the health of seagrass.

Will Piney Point finally disappear?

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is now suing Piney Points’ owner, HRK Holdings. A Tampa lawyer is now the site’s independent manager as a court-appointed receiver.

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.

The stacks and ponds are being protected from further failures. 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 solutions.

Is seafood safe to eat?Here’s how Red Tide can affect what you eat.

Can I go fish?The state has imposed restrictions on saltwater fishing.

Pine Point: Red Tide may be fuelled perhaps by the environmental catastrophe

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, 1-800-636-0511 to report dead fish in 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 has an online dashboard for beach information.

How to stay safe in the water

Avoid swimming with dead fish.

Red Tide blooms are a red flag for those suffering from chronic respiratory problems. Red Tide can affect you.

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.

Beachgoers can use masks to protect themselves.

Source: Florida Department of Health, Pinellas County

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