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Scientists studying potential effects on Tampa Bay from Piney Point discharge

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — While contaminated water is drained from the Piney Point facility, researchers are keeping a close eye on any impacts to Tampa Bay.

Wednesday, the Florida Institute of Oceanography deployed its research vessel, the R/V Weatherbird II with scientists from the University of South Florida aboard to study the environmental impact of the breach at the former fertilizer processing plant .

“There’s a lot to be learned about science from this. We know that some of this is not going to be good but we don’t know the extent so we have to provide the assets the platforms to get those scientist out there so they can do their job,” said Dr. Monty Graham, the director of the FIO.

The ship was previously used to study the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The team effort to launch the initiative required hiring more people within days following COVID protocols, to now study the effects of Piney Point.

“The harmful algal blooms are there regardless of this spill. So that is obviously a concern. So one of the primary concerns what’s going to be the interaction between this water and the cells that we know are already out there and migrating up and causing problems along the coast so without a doubt that’s going to be one of the big concerns,” said Graham.

The researchers spent the day collecting samples from Tampa Bay and Port Manatee to analyze, planning to look at the water chemistry, sediments and fish.

“We collected samples for chemistry in the water, we collected samples from fish and bottom sediments. We also collected samples for analysis of phytoplankton and various microbial communities and some tracers of contaminants that might be in that discharged water,” said Tom Frazer, the dean of USF’s College of Marine Science.

He said there were no gross anomalies spotted.

“We didn’t see any major fish kills, and no indication that there was a recognizable discoloration of the water other than right perhaps around the Port Manatee area. So that’s why you take those samples because a lot of the story is in the chemical dissolved component so the story will unfold over a couple days,” Frazer said.

The nutrient level in the discharged water has driven concerns for some of those monitoring the Bay.

The Floria Department of Environmental Protection said about 173 million gallons of water has been discharged to Port Manatee. While it says samples in Tampa Bay are at marine quality standards, samples near the active discharge point show elevated levels of phosphorous.

The agency said now two technology companies are given the job to start treatments to reduce or remove nutrients from the water before it’s discharged.

In the meantime the scientists aboard the research vessel plan to continue taking samples, though results could take time.

“We’ll continue to evaluate the data and see where there are hotspots for example, and if they continue to be hotspots then we will continue to sample that. Ultimately what we want to be able to do is see if we can connect what happened at the release point in Tampa Bay and Port Manatee and whether or not that has an impact on coastal waters outside of the bay,” said Frazer. “So again it could very well take some time to get a full characterization of the picture.”

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