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Piney Point not believed to be the cause of Red Tide in Pinellas

Florida’s former chief science officer said a leak in a reservoir at a former phosphate plant in Manatee County isn’t the cause of a red tide outbreak along beaches this week in Pinellas County.

But Tom Frazer, now the dean and a professor at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, said during a discussion hosted by Gov. Ron DeSantis that nutrients from the Piney Point phosphate-plant site could be helping fuel the outbreak.

Frazer added that other sources could include runoff from area septic tanks, the region’s 18 stormwater systems and agricultural and residential fertilizer.

“I don't think that the red tide was originated as a consequence of Piney Point,” Frazer said during the discussion at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. “One of the things that we saw with the red tide early on was that it was south of the discharge area, with the red tide continuing to kind of migrate or move northward into lower Tampa Bay.”

“It's quite possible that nutrients, recycled nutrients in the system as a result of Piney Point could have contributed to that. But there are a large number of nutrient sources along the coast. And, again, we've tried to address a lot of those nutrient sources.”

The source of toxic algae outbreaks in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico is typically a single-celled organism called Karenia brevis algae, which produces toxins that kill fish, birds, sea turtles, manatees and dolphins and can cause shellfish poisoning in humans.

Wastewater on the Piney Point site is contaminated, and a leak in a reservoir in early April led to a temporary evacuation of residents and a state of emergency amid fears that a breach could lead a wall to collapse.

When asked about holding the owners of Piney Point accountable for the problems, DeSantis said the Department of Environmental Protection is working on a plan to “mothball” the site.

The Legislature agreed this spring to set aside $100 million in federal coronavirus relief money for the work.

Pinellas County authorities continue removing sea life apparently killed by red tide from local beaches.