Work crews were pumping millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater into an ecologically sensitive Florida bay on Sunday, as they tried to prevent the “imminent” collapse of a storage reservoir at an old phosphate mine.
Officials in Manatee county extended an evacuation zone overnight and warned that up to 340m gallons could engulf the area in “a 20ft wall of water” if they could not repair the breach at the Piney Point reservoir in the Tampa Bay area, north of Bradenton.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, declared a state of emergency after officials warned of the “imminent collapse” of the pond.
He toured the scene by helicopter and said at a press conference engineers were still attempting to plug breaches in the reservoir wall with rocks and other materials, and that other mitigation efforts included the controlled release of 35m gallons daily at Port Manatee.
He said the state’s department of environmental protection (DEP) had brought in 20 new pumps.
“What we’re looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation,” DeSantis said. “The water quality issues that are flowing from this for us is less than the risk of everyone’s health and safety, particularly folks who may live in the area.”
The governor also attempted to downplay reports that the water contained traces of radioactive materials.
“The water was tested prior to discharge [and] the primary concern is nutrients,” he said. “The water meets water quality standards, standards for marine waters, with the exception primarily of the phosphorus and the nitrogen.”
Scott Hopes, the acting county administrator, warned that despite a low population density, the nearby area could be overwhelmed by a sudden collapse of the 77-acre pond, even though discharges had lessened the quantity of remaining water.
“What if we should have a full breach? We’re down to about 340m gallons that could breach in totality in a period of minutes, and the models for less than an hour are as high as a 20ft wall of water.
“So if you’re in an evacuation area and you have not heeded that you need to think twice and follow the orders.”
Officials widened the evacuation zone late on Saturday from a dozen or so properties to more than 300 houses. The Tampa Bay Times interviewed some residents who were refusing to leave.
A local jail a mile away from the leaky pond was not being evacuated, but officials were moving people and staff to the second story and putting sandbags on the ground floor. Hopes said models showed the area could be covered with between 1ft to 5ft of water, and the second floor is 10ft above ground.
County officials said well water remained unaffected and there was no threat to Lake Manatee, the area’s primary source of drinking water.
The pond at the abandoned phosphate mine sits in a stack of phosphogypsum, a radioactive waste product from fertiliser manufacturing. The pond contains small amounts of naturally occurring radium and uranium. The stacks can also release large concentrations of radon gas.
Nikki Fried, the Florida agriculture commissioner and the only elected Democrat in statewide office, warned of an “environmental catastrophe” and called on DeSantis – who described the toxic water as “mixed saltwater” in a tweet announcing the state of emergency – to hold an emergency cabinet meeting.
“Floridians were evacuated from their homes on Easter weekend. 480m gallons of toxic wastewater could end up in Tampa Bay – this might become an environmental catastrophe,” she said on Twitter.
Environmental protection groups warned that more pollutants in Tampa Bay would heighten the risk to wildlife from toxic red tide algae blooms.
“Phosphate companies have had over 50 years to figure out a way to dispose of the radioactive gypsum wastes,” the activist group Mana-Sota 88 said. “At the present time there are no federal, state or local regulations requiring the industry to make final disposition of phosphogypsum wastes in an environmentally acceptable manner.”
In a statement, the group added: “The current crisis can be traced back to the absurd 2006 decision to allow dredged material from Port Manatee to be placed into one of the gyp stacks at Piney Point, something the stack was never designed for and should have never been allowed.”
At the Sunday press conference, Hopes said the long-term objective would be to entirely pump out the three reservoirs on the site and fill them in. Later in the day, he said the amount of water left in the reservoir was now below 300m gallons. The county commission said it was more comfortable than it had been, though a catastrophic collapse was still a possibility.
Hopes also said: “This could have been resolved over two decades ago.”
The owner of Piney Point, HRK Holdings, bought the site after it was abandoned by the Mulberry Corporation, which operated the phosphate plant for more than 40 years. As long ago as 2003, the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported, reservoir walls were crumbling. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) previously authorized the dumping of hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic water into the Gulf of Mexico.
At a meeting of the Manatee commission on Thursday, called after the seriousness of the new leak became apparent, engineers pointed to the deterioration of the pond’s decades-old plastic liner.
“The condition of the liner is not particularly great,” Mike Kelley, an engineer commissioned by HRK Holdings, told the meeting, the Times reported. “It’s old. There were some installation issues. There’s a long-documented history of that liner system having issues.”
The newspaper inspected records and found that staff documented small holes or weaknesses in plastic seams above the water line in July, October and December 2020.
On Sunday, DeSantis said HRK would be held accountable.
Five fertility clinic patients awarded $15m after failure of freezing tank
Five patients of a California fertility center have been awarded a total of $15m after a freezing tank failed, rendering some of more than 3,500 frozen human embryos and eggs unviable.
While the extent of the damage from the accidental thaw is unclear, jurors awarded the sum to clients of the Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco after finding that the storage tank maker, Chart Industries, knew about a defect that prevented accurate temperature monitoring and had not warned the center about the problem.
The case could have significant consequences for a fertility industry estimated to be worth $37bn by 2030 and comes amid declining fertility rates and a drop in childbirth, recently described as a Covid baby-bust.
Jurors in the case found that Chart was 90% and Pacific Fertility 10% responsible for the failure to adequately safeguard the material. It marks the first time a jury has awarded damages in a case involving the destruction of eggs and embryos.
“This verdict should be a wake-up call for fertility centers. The jury’s award shows that when clinics make mistakes they can be devastating,” Adam Wolf, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Guardian.
At the trial, the freezer manufacturer argued that the error was caused by fertility clinic lab employees unplugging the tank’s malfunctioning controller and then keeping eggs and embryos in a container with no temperature-alert system in operation for 17 days.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs presented evidence that Chart knew about a problem with the tank from a 2012 internal study and had received complaints about a malfunctioning controller since 2015.
Laura and Kevin Parsell, a couple who had four frozen embryos that were lost, were awarded $7.2m. Rosalynn Enfield, a 43-year-old mother of two who lost 18 eggs, was awarded $2.6m; Adrienne Sletten, a 43-year-old woman who lost two eggs, was awarded $2.075m. Chloe Poynton, a 39-year-old woman who lost nine eggs, was awarded $3.1m.
“It’s really painful to be at a baby shower celebrating someone else’s family being built and knowing inside you’ll never get that,” Poynton told the court.
In closing arguments last week, attorney Dena Sharp had asked for up to $30m in damages. “Nothing can bring these eggs and embryos back,” Sharp said. “Nothing can turn back that biological clock. Nothing can truly restore what these plaintiffs had taken from them.”
Wolf, meanwhile, said many of those who had lost eggs and embryos, were still struggling with their loss.
The claim was the first to come to trial out of 140 federal lawsuits filed against the tank manufacturer over the accident. A second trial involving about five other plaintiffs is scheduled to begin later this year.
But Pacific Fertility is not the sole fertility clinic to have reported problems with Chart’s freezer. More than 4,000 eggs and embryos were lost at the University Hospitals Fertility Clinic in Cleveland. About 150 families have settled claims with the clinic. Other related lawsuits are ongoing.
Wolf said his firm, Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane & Conway, had represented hundreds of people over eight years in claims against the fertility industry, which is largely unregulated except in terms of the way in which clinics can advertise their pregnancy success rates.
Groups such as the American Society for Reproductive Medicine set industry standards for facilities that opt in, but the recommendations are voluntary. In some cases, clinics have used the wrong sperm and there is no oversight in terms of registering recipients of third-party sperm.
“Tragically we see very serious errors on a daily basis. These are the wild west days of the American fertility industry. It operates behind closed doors, and under a veil of secrecy. It can do, basically, whatever it likes, and that’s no way for an industry that is so important to operate,” Wolf said.
“Storage tank breakdowns are one example of problems in this industry. The lack of oversight, ranging from not knowing the if tanks are being appropriately regulated to manufacturing defects to not knowing how many other people may have used the same donor eggs or sperm, is worrying.”
As its stands, fertility clinics are required only to report success rates when they use reproductive technology involving eggs, but not when only sperm is used. “But reporting success rates does not regulate how the eggs are stored or other types of negligence,” Cahn said.
While the ASRM has a strong role in providing guidance, greater oversight is required to protect future families, Cahn says. If she were to issue a call to lawmakers, she added, it would be to “establish one single government entity to oversee the fertility industry and ensure that entity issues appropriate regulations including certification of all aspects of the technology”.
“We don’t want to interfere with the patient-physician relationship, we just want to make sure that when you trust your egg, sperm and embryos to a tank, that tank will not malfunction and there are appropriate procedures in the clinic if it does.”
‘My God, I’m in a whale’s mouth’: lobster diver on brush with hungry humpback
A New England lobsterman has described the moment he realised he was trapped in the mouth of a humpback whale off the coast of Cape Cod.
“Oh my God, I’m in a whale’s mouth and he’s trying to swallow me. I thought to myself, ‘hey, this is it. I’m finally going to die. There’s no getting out of here,’’’ Michael Packard told a local news station in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Packard, 56, was 45ft down off Race Point in search of lobsters when the feeding whale, presumed to be a juvenile, took him. He said he “felt this huge bump and everything went dark”.
At first the fisherman assumed he had been attacked by a great white [shark] buthe could find no teeth. “It was happening so fast,” Packard said. “My only thought was how to get out of that mouth.”
Partially ingested in the leviathan’s maw, and surrounded by a curtain of filtering baleen, Packard said he kept breathing into the regulator of his scuba tank.
“I realised there was no overcoming a beast of that size. He was going to do with me what he wanted to do. He was going to spit me out or swallow me.”
Later, during the half-minute ordeal, Packard said he began to consider his situation more clearly: “Here I am, I’m breathing air. Am I going to be breathing air in this whale’s mouth until it runs out? Crazy stuff.”
The whale thought better.
“All of a sudden he went up to the surface and just erupted and started shaking his head. I just got thrown in the air and landed in the water,” Packard recalled. “I was free and I just floated there. I couldn’t believe … I’m here to tell it.”
Boat captain Joe Francis, who had been following Packard’s bubbles, told CBS Boston: “I saw Mike come flying out of the water feet first with his flippers on and land back in the water. I jumped aboard the boat. We got him up, got his tank off. Got him on the deck and calmed him down and he goes, ‘Joe, I was in the mouth of a whale.’ He goes ‘I can’t believe it, I was in the mouth of a whale, Joe!’”
Packard was taken to hospital and discharged later that day. “He’s damn lucky to be alive,” Francis added.
Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan and Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World, and a friend of Packard and his fishing partner Josiah Mayo, says the humpback was almost certainly as surprised as the diver.
Hoare says Herring Cove beach, adjacent to Race Point and where the incident took place, is shallow and known for gatherings of juvenile humpbacks feeding on sand eels at this time of year.
Whales have poor forward vision, he noted. “Mike would have been down there collecting lobsters, and the whale, trying to swallow sand eels, would have suddenly found he had a diver in his mouth while he or she was dragging in a huge volume of water.”
But before the whale could push the water out through the baleen filter – and lick the sand eels off with the tongue – the individual would have found Packard. Since a humpback’s esophagus wont accept anything larger than a melon, the whale would probably have panicked. “This young humpback is hanging out, it really hasn’t learned how to feed properly and doing stupid things, and suddenly he’s in trouble.
“He’s gulped Michael and now has this huge thing in mouth. That would be totally freaky for a whale, so it’s gone up to the surface, and in a human way, vomited him out. The last thing a whale wants in its mouth is something so big it would choke it.
“Michael is inside the whale, and God knows what he’s thinking, but anyone on the Cape knows the problem with great whites. “They are there, and they’re huge, and three people have been attacked – one fatally – in the past year,” says Hoare.
Hoare says Packard will be transformed in to mythic figure in Provincetown – “the Jonah who came back. He’ll never have pay for another drink for the rest of his life.” The film-maker John Waters, a seasonal resident of Provincetown, had been in touch. “Are you jealous, and do you believe it?” Waters wrote.
Talks in Washington deadlocked as Biden meets UK PM Johnson – live
Joe Biden met with Boris Johnson in Cornwall while Jill Biden wore a “love” blazer.
Meanwhile, talks deadlocked on, well, a lot of things – but mostly the bipartisan negotiations around the infrastructure plan. Lawmakers on both side were expressing frustration Thursday with the concept of bipartisanship, but Senator Mitt Romney hinted at a possible agreement.
Representative Ilhan Omar received death threats as members of her own party condemned her for saying that “we have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan and the Taliban.”
Today in San Francisco, Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general, said that his office has filed an appeal of the recent federal court decision that struck down the state’s assault weapon restrictions.
Standing alongside Governor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and representatives from Brady United and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Bonta said that while the opinion was of “great concern”, “we are not deterred by this ruling.”
This appeal comes after a 4 June ruling from Judge Roger Benitez that ruled that California’s 32 year-old restrictions were unconstitutional. The decision drew immediate criticism for Benitez’s comparison of assault weapons to “Swiss army knives” and false claim that more Californians have died from the Covid-19 vaccine than mass shootings.
Bonta is also extending the 30-day-stay, so that the current laws stay in effect throughout the appeal process.
Learn more about what Judge Benitez’s ruling mean for the state here:
Florida public schools ban teaching of critical-race theory
The Florida Board of Education has approved tougher guidelines for teaching US history in public schools that prohibits teachers from discussing critical-race theory or the 1619 Project.
The reactive push against the movement to teaching non-whitewashed versions of American history that don’t downplay the role of slavery and racism in the founding of the country has long been a conservative rallying point. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, tweeted that critical-race theory was “state-sanctioned racism and has no place in Florida schools”.
Something may have happened. Or not. But that’s pretty much the state of it this week, isn’t it?
We’re back on the infrastructure plan, and the hopes of a bipartisan agreement. Joe Biden ended negotiations with Republicans before he left on his first overseas trip, but said he planned to stay in touch. People on both sides are saying the time for bipartisanship is done, whether related to the infrastructure plan or otherwise.
But! Possibly an agreement, per Republican Utah Senator Mitt Romney. Except someone forgot to tell Montana Senator Jon Tester.
So could there be an agreement? Unclear. We’ll see.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio set Twitter ablaze today when he decided to preview a commercial for ranked-choice voting with a giant ballot of pizza toppings.
Ranked-choice voting is when you rank a number of candidates for each race. If none wins an outright majority in the first round of counting, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and then the second-place votes are counted, and this keeps going until someone earns at least 50% of the votes plus one.
It wasn’t the type of voting that stirred controversy, but de Blasio’s ranking: 1. Green peppers 2. Green olives 3. Sausage 4. Mushrooms 5. Pepperoni
And also, there’s also the fact that pizza is not quite the right analogy for an election.
The FBI director, Christopher Wray, is testifying before the House judiciary committee on oversight of the FBI. Hate violence and white supremacist ideology were large focuses, and Wray received a number of questions about the 6 January attack on the US Capitol.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is apparently pretty done with bipartisanship too.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who thinks “the era of bipartisanship is over”, doesn’t seem particularly phased.
More Democrats are joining together to condemn Minnesota Ilhan Omar for saying that “we have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan and the Taliban.” Meanwhile, more of her allies are rallying behind her in support as well.
Here’s our first look at the meeting between Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and First Lady Jill Biden and Carrie Johnson.
A lot has been hyped about bipartisanship this week. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said “the era of bipartisanship is over”, with every bill the Democrats have introduced in June including something he said Republicans could not support. Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin gave it as the reason why he wasn’t voting for the For The People bill that would voting rights, because he believed such legislation needed to be bipartisan.
Then there was the bipartisan negotiations between Joe Biden and Republicans over an infrastructure plan. On Tuesday, Biden ended negotiations. Despite his willingness to reduce his plan by more than $1 trillion, Republicans had increased their proposed new investments by only $150bn. And then there was the issue of tax increases.
Though Biden said he would stay in touch with Republicans during his trip, things aren’t looking great.
About 90 advocacy groups have since called on Biden and the Democrats to use the partisan reconciliation process instead of relying on negotiations.
Reconciliation is a rule that allows Congress to pass new budget resolutions with new spending priorities with a simple 51-vote majority in the Senate without having to worry about a filibuster.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats are already working on a plan to pass an infrastructure measure via the reconciliation process.
Omar receives death threats as lawmakers condemn her comments
Democratic Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar is once again receiving death threats as 12 members of her own party condemn her for appearing to liken Hamas and the Taliban to Israel and the United States.
“We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,” she tweeted in a question to Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the International Criminal Court on Monday. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”