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Alafia rebounds from ammonia leak

Weeks after a pipe leak, there's "no real evidence of any tremendous harm."

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007



Thousands of sardines glistened against the sand. The stench of dead fish filled the air as the smell of ammonia faded. Clumps of algae popped up along the water's surface.

But now, more than three weeks after a pipe leak sent at least 5 tons of ammonia into the Alafia, scientists say the river seems to be bouncing back.

"There was no real evidence of any tremendous harm," said Tony D'Aquila, director of environmental resources management for the Environmental Protection Commission. "We really are fortunate that it wasn't worse."

Environmental officials are still trying to determine how much ammonia entered the Alafia, EPC project manager Ed Sherwood said.

Estimates range from 5 tons to 30 tons, he said, depending on how much ammonia leaked from Tampa Bay Pipeline's pipe.

Scientists from the EPC started collecting water samples the day after the leak.

Initially, EPC officials said the concentration of ammonia in the river was 30 times the normal level. They said the environmental impact - from the immediate toxic effects of ammonia and from the chemical's reaction with water - could be significant.

Scientists did spot several areas with increased algae growth: downstream near the Interstate 75 bridge and in the bay near the mouth of the river. The blooms could have been caused by the reaction of ammonia with water, Sherwood said, but tests are pending.

Several days after crews stopped the leak, Sherwood said, nitrate levels in the river were back to normal.

"It flushed out pretty fast," said John Schimenti, a Riverview resident who said he spotted thousands of dead fish, crabs and clams on the beach near his riverfront home.

"The first couple of days, they were all over the place," said Bert Schleissing, who also lives on the river. "You could smell the dead fish."

For birds, it was a feast.

For residents, it raised environmental concerns.

"It was pretty nasty," said Schimenti, 58, who said his family stayed out of the water for about a week.

Even though visible signs of environmental problems have faded, Schimenti said impacts from the leak linger.

Fishermen have noted fewer fish in the river, he said.

"The bait's gone for the other fish to eat. It's a chain reaction," Schimenti said. "The food chain is broken."

Reach Catherine E. Shoichet at or 661-2454.

[Last modified December 6, 2007, 07:40:25]

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