Aboard the R/V Weatherbird II, a team of USF scientists from the College of Marine Sciences in St. Pete sailed offshore to Tampa Bay on Wednesday morning to study the environmental impacts of the Piney Point reservoir release.
The research vessel, which was also used in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response effort in 2010, departed from the St. Pete campus promptly at 8 a.m. The crew, consisting of six people from the Florida Institute of Oceanography and eight USF scientists, will spend the day offshore collecting water samples, surface sediments and fish from the Tampa Bay area as well as Port Manatee for assessment.
The team, led by USF chemical oceanographer Kristen Buck and biological oceanographer Steve Murawski, will also be collecting data samples for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Eckerd College and Florida State University.
With the materials collected, the scientists will analyze and assess the salinity, oxygen, pH, carbon, bacteria and nutrients levels of the water. Data regarding the pH, for instance, might be available immediately, while others can take weeks to months to be finalized, according to College of Marine Science Dean Thomas Frazer.
“Most people understand that the discharge water is a combination of stormwater, so-called dredge water and some legacy process water. It’s fairly saline, it’s high in nutrients, so our chemists are going to be particularly interested in looking at the nitrogen and phosphorus and other nutrients in the system,” Frazer said.
“They’ll look at the things that affect the chemistry, that could be the pH, the temperature and things like that so we’ll have some information that’s reflected immediately, others that need to be processed or data that needs to be collected. Samples will be processed in the lab, some of those take days and some of those actually take weeks.”
Approximately 165 million gallons of wastewater have been released into Port Manatee in Tampa Bay following the Piney Point reservoirs breach, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. While the risks of a breach at the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack have been reduced and evacuation orders lifted across Hillsborough and Manatee counties, the concern on how the wastewater release might impact the bay area has been rising among scientists as well as the community.
The water being released, which is high in nitrogen and phosphorus, could lead to harmful algal blooms in the bay, which the crew is looking to analyze.
As of April 5, 300 million gallons of water were still left in the leaking pond.
Frazer said the team’s research will help inform the response and mitigation efforts across the bay area.
“It’s important to mobilize quickly to evaluate an environmental impact and what we want to do. [From] the science perspective, is to understand where that material might be transported, how it might be transformed along the way and where it might end up,” he said.