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Florida evacuation order lifted

Leaky phosphate reservoir ordeal ‘under control’

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A mandatory evacuation order near a leaking Florida wastewater reservoir that affected more than 300 homes and additional businesses was lifted Tuesday as officials said the situation was under control.

With the deployment of more than two dozen pumps and other equipment, fears have eased that the reservoir from an old phospate fertilizer plant would burst through its earthen walls and cause widespread flooding in Manatee County, just south of Tampa.

The reservoir initially held about 480 million gallons of contaminated water, but much has been drained away once the leak was discovered.

“The mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted,” said Scott Hopes, the county administrator. “We believe the risk has been mitigated and controlled.”

Earlier, officials announced that a major highway near the site, U.S. 41, would be reopened.

The decisions on Tuesday come as Florida lawmakers are proposing to spend up to $200 million to clean up and close the wastewater reservoir. But it was not immediately clear how officials plan to tackle what would be a huge engineering challenge.

The state Senate president, Republican Wilton Simpson, said a legislative committee on Wednesday will take up an amendment to use federal money for the project. Its sponsor is Sen. Jim Boyd, a Republican from Bradenton where the Piney Point reservoir is located.

“This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen for too long,” Simpson said in a statement. “We don’t want to be talking about this problem again in five, 10 or 20 years.”

A House committee is also expected to consider a similar bill Wednesday.

Under the proposals, the money would come from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package signed into law in March by President Joe Biden.

“This is a huge step forward for our community,” Boyd said.

Nikki Fried, the state commissioner of the Agriculture and Consumer Services Department, toured the site Tuesday and told reporters the situation appears to have stabilized.

“It seems like this is under control, as much as something like this could be under control,” said Fried, a Democrat. “We need to take immediate action to fix this.”

The reservoir, and two others nearby, sit in stacks of phosphogypsum, a solid radioactive byproduct from manufacturing fertilizer from an old phosphate plant that is no longer in operation.

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