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What could Piney Point do to Tampa Bay?

Scientists are trying to forecast what comes next. Environmentalists fear algal blooms and fish kills.

The focus for emergency teams at the old Piney Point phosphate plant property is stopping a flood from surging out of an enormous, leaking reservoir of polluted water.

Success on that front could mean pumping a majority of the 480 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay, posing an ecological danger to the treasured estuary that clean water advocates say may endure for weeks or months.

Releases as of early Monday had dropped the pond level by approximately 100 million gallons. “That’s like dumping 50,000 bags of fertilizer into the bay all at once,” said Ed Sherwood, director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

The Estuary Program has tracked the nitrogen load, mostly from runoff, in that portion of the bay from Port Manatee to Pinellas Point and south for years. The releases to the port, if they continue until the pond is empty, could in a matter of days put in “double the amount of nutrients ... than what we would like to see in an entire year,” Sherwood said.

Like fertilizer on land, the nitrogen may encourage growth in the water, in the form of algal blooms. The Estuary Program is working with researchers at the University of South Florida to forecast where the polluted discharges from Piney Point might flow, and how quickly they will leave the bay.

“Real provisional at this point, but we’re concerned about the plume heading south to the east on the shore of Tampa Bay,” Sherwood said. If the wastewater is carried into shallow areas of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, he said, scientists fear algal blooms will follow. The model results are preliminary, and it remains uncertain how much waste will hit the bay and where currents and tides will carry it.

If the nutrients do fuel a bloom, oxygen levels in the water would drop as the algae decays, said Mark Luther, a University of South Florida oceanography professor. That could mean fish and other marine life die in large numbers around the polluted area.