Call It A Crisis: An Update On Piney Point & Tampa Bay

Florida Beachgoers & Residents Feeling The Devastating Effects of Pollution

It wasn’t a great weekend in Florida, if you ask me and many residents reaching out to me.

Toxic algae blooms, which killed around 200 tons of marine life three years ago, are back and stronger than ever.

“Don't go in the water,” was the advice from the National Weather Service at Pinellas County beaches over the weekend.

Residents say the typically clear waters are now look like “a murky, brownish-red soup with lots of dead fish.”

Mike in Apollo Beach wrote to me saying, “We have a catastrophic event killing the majority of the fishery and the ecosystem itself. This has not occurred within Tampa Bay in 30-plus years. There are islands of dead fish floating in Tampa Bay. This is destroying the recreation and occupations related to our Tampa Bay ecosystem. I am an Environmental Biologist and USCG licensed Charter Captain and Inshore Fishing Guide. This was inevitable and foreseeable, was preventable. Big corporations and regulatory agencies are not being held accountable.”

Let’s review. Back in April we wrote about the unfortunate situation at the former Piney Point fertilizer processing plant, when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection approved the pumping of about 480 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Tampa Bay:

Dumping the wastewater from the reservoir might be a quick fix to avoid an environmental catastrophe, but it will certainly have long term implications for Florida’s shorelines.

Enter 600 tons of dead fish washing up along Tampa Bay’s shore in mid-July. Don’t mind the stench of rotting dead sea life.

In June, Florida’s top environmental official quit. Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein’s resignation became effective June 4, according to a letter he sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis. He served as public face of the agency’s response to the wastewater leak at Piney Point and promised to drain contaminated water from the property.

But the red tide is here and getting worse.

“The conditions in Tampa Bay are horrid right now,” said Ed Sherwood, executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (TBEP), via email.

To add insult to injury, almost 90,000 gallons of industrial wastewater spilled at Port Tampa Bay’s Redwing location last week and earlier in the month 60,000 gallons of residential wastewater spilled into Hillsborough Bay.

Who is responsible for this pollution and who will be accountable?

Call your governor. Call your senators and representatives. Call Fish and Wildlife. Call the Health Department and the DEP!!

To report a known or suspected environmental concern, your can submit a tip to the DEP’s Citizen Concern Portal.

Tampa Bay was designated an “estuary of national significance” by Congress in 1990, laying the foundation for the creation of the TBEP in 1991. The program is one of 28 National Estuary Programs designated by Congress to restore and protect the estuary and surrounding watershed.

“Our county partners are focused on addressing the immediate public health, economic and environmental impacts resulting from the latest fish kills washing ashore in the Bay,” Ed said. “There is still an active need for funding/resources to assist with clean-up efforts in our region. Removing dead fish from the system will help reduce nutrient availability that could further fuel the red tide bloom that’s causing the current fish kill.”

He says they are still seeing high red tide counts throughout the water column in the Bay, even after the passage of Hurricane Elsa and initial clean-up efforts by Pinellas County.

“We fear a prolonged red tide/fish kill event may still unfold through the course of our rainy season (which typically ends in Sep./Oct.),” he said. “We know there has been excessive nutrient inputs into the Bay this year from the Piney Point discharge that has set the course for what we’re now experiencing.”

It’s not rocket science.

When you dump toxic chemicals into the water, there will be consequences. In this case, an overload of nutrients is feeding the toxic bloom.

Captains for Clean Water posted some shocking photos on their Instagram account, (trigger warning: a dead dolphin) writing, “Nothing worse than getting all these shocking visuals from our friends in Tampa Bay. It’s been really sad to see red tide and other algal blooms causing fish kills in the Tampa Bay Area for a few weeks now, but what we’ve seen in the past few days has been absolutely heartbreaking.”

To report a fish kill to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), call the hotline at 800-636-0511. For more resources, click here

The toxic chemicals formed by red tide can impact both marine organisms and humans, according to experts from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The microscopic, single-celled, photosynthetic algae called karenia brevis, produces brevetoxins that can distress the central nervous system of fish and other vertebrates, causing these massive fish kills.  

The state of Florida can’t continue to kick the can down the road. I encourage everyone there to get involved.

Support the organizations on the ground that know these waters and the issues polluting them better than anyone.

All subscriptions to this newsletter for the next two weeks will go directly to the orgs working in Florida, so join now!

Any gift you can make is valuable. Contribute money, contribute time, contribute to the clean-up. Don’t just sit there. The people that care have to make the change.

Ed Sherwood offered perspective on the longer view of how to help Tampa Bay:

“Systemic investments in dealing with coastal nutrient pollution should be a priority,” he said. “We have both aging stormwater and wastewater infrastructure issues that need to be addressed, if we want to prevent these sort of events from unfolding year-after-year. The Southwest Florida region just experienced a significant red tide event over the 2017-2019 period, and we’re now faced with another significant event in 2021. The magnitude of which might be different if Piney Point had not occurred.

The public needs to know that making significant investments into managing coastal nutrients more effectively in our region not only makes environmental sense, it also makes cents for our economy. When we skimp on those investments, our communities pay the price like we’re currently experiencing.”

C’mon Florida, no one can do this alone. Now is the time to rise up. Add your thoughts and comments below!