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Evacuees head home as Florida leaders signal worst of wastewater breach danger is over

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Sen. Janet Cruz told reporters they felt “crisis had been averted” after touring the Piney Point site Tuesday.

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — After three and a half days of staying with family in St. Petersburg, Molly Keirn says she’s heading back home with her two toddlers and two large dogs Tuesday.

She and her family have been staying with her mother in St. Petersburg after mandatory evacuation orders came out over the weekend in response to the wastewater emergency at Piney Point.

“We left Saturday morning. I packed up their Easter baskets and their birth certificates and important stuff,” said Keirn of the stressful past three days. “I was worried about us being flooded with toxic water.”

But after receiving a morning update from Manatee County and the reopening of US-41, Keirn says she and others in her neighborhood felt more confident about returning home and that the worst of the danger was gone.

“I don’t feel like we’re going to get a tsunami,” said Keirn. “At first they were saying you could get a 20-foot wall. I mean it's scary to look in your backyard and see a 45-foot hill of where this lake is locates, so that’s why we definitely said Saturday, we’re not going to risk it.”

As of Tuesday morning, county leaders reported there were just about 300 million gallons remaining in the main retention lake and that pumping overnight had successfully reduced pressure on the walls of the old Piney Point phosphate plant to reduce the risk to the public.

County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes told commissioners he was confident the risk is being reduced. Manatee County lifted the mandatory evacuation order near Piney Point late Tuesday afternoon.

County leaders also heard good news from DEP crews out taking water samples, both at the discharge site and further out in Tampa Bay. So far, water samples are coming back within acceptable levels, indicating the water being pumped out was not as toxic as some feared.

All along, county leaders said the water was mainly made up of salt water pumped in from a dredging of Port Manatee mixed with rain and leftover process water from the mining of phosphate. Early indications show the water near the bottom of the holding pool is more contaminated and high in ammonia and nitrogen than the water being pumped out at the top.

County leaders and the state say water samples will be taken daily from various spots around the port and further out into Tampa Bay. The results are being posted online.

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