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What we know about Piney Point’s impact on Tampa Bay

One year later, scientists are still studying the effects of an enormous wastewater release.Scientists might never agree on how much Piney Point is to blame for causing or exacerbating multiple algae blooms last year.

PALMETTO — The 215 million gallons of wastewater plunged into Tampa Bay like a shot of liquid fertilizer.

What happened next was unsurprising, scientists say. Algae bloomed, likely supercharged by the contaminated water released last year from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property.

The wastewater was bad for Tampa Bay, but measuring how bad is complicated. One reason: The bay is routinely tainted by other pollution, making it hard to isolate Piney Point’s effect.

Algae use nitrogen to grow, but runoff from heavily fertilized lawns and leaking sewer systems are constant problems.

“We’re talking about compounds that currently exist in the environment at some level,” said Steve Murawski, a fisheries biologist at the University of South Florida. “Trying to find that signal ... is always a challenge.”

Researchers are looking to identify connections between the release and the blooms by tracing signatures in nutrients from Piney Point that could show up in the algae, like fingerprints. That work is incomplete, said one of the researchers, Elise Morrison, a professor in the University of Florida’s department of environmental engineering services.

Scientists have assembled a timeline, though, that suggests pollution from Piney Point may have cycled through the environment for most of last spring and summer. It is laid out in a recently published paper from the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Read the research paper »