I’m an avid user of TikTok and often find interesting things, funny things, and sometimes even topics to write about for CleanTechnica there. This past week I found a few videos from folks in Tampa Bay on my For You Page (FYP), which is the app’s version of a home feed area where the algorithm picks videos it thinks you would like to see.
I am sharing the story of TrashCaulin, who documents his work on TikTok and other apps. Caulin is an environmental advocate who often cleans up trash and documents pollution. The first video I saw wasn’t just his, but it was from @EcoLogicalChris, who explained in his video that Caulin was in Florida trying to raise awareness about what was happening in Florida.
I reached out to Caulin on Instagram, who agreed to a phone interview. Caulin explained that in April 2021, a phosphate plant known as Piney Point, which is owned by HRK Holdings, was allowed by the State of Florida to discharge toxic contaminated wastewater into Tampa Bay. This was an effort to prevent the collapse of the dam to the reservoir that prevented the wastewater from entering the bay. (This was on national news at the time, so you may have caught it.)
In May, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the contamination levels may have declined but the initial results showed that the effect of the release was contained in an area of lower Tampa Bay. “We’re fairly fortunate that we didn’t see a long-lived, widespread effect on that ecosystem,” said Thomas Frazer, dean of the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.
From my conversation with Caulin, it’s clear that this is most definitely having a long-lived, widespread effect on that ecosystem — and probably the surrounding ecosystems.
“Back in April 2021, there was a location called Piney Point, which was a wastewater management treatment plant that is located on the Manatee County side of Tampa Bay Area. What happened was this treatment plant was not maintained and over time it became very poorly constructionally sound. The foundation of one of the pools started to crack and they spent a couple of days figuring out what they were going to do about it.
“Instead of letting the whole foundation crack and it seep into the bay, they decided that they’re just going to drain roughly 173 gallons worth of the wastewater. It’s called phosphate-phosphogypsum and it’s basically phosphate runoff from agriculture farming and stuff like that. So they took the 173 gallons — just basically the top layer — and dumped it into the ocean.”
A Perfect Storm For Red Tide
“In doing so, there’s already harmful red tide anticipation for the year 2021 coming, but with all of that phosphate that was added into the bay, it allowed the algae to pick up on it and bloom harder — along with the warm water we’ve been experiencing this year. It kind of just made the perfect storm for this red tide.
“This was back in April 2021, and when that happened, everyone was kind of already fearing that this red tide was going to be really bad. So, in the past week or so, it started to really make itself evident on how much bigger it was than other red tides. And it’s only been like 20 days in.”
What Caulin Has Seen
Caulin shared that although he was born in Florida, he lives in California, and as soon as he found out about what was happening in Tampa Bay, he flew out to document it.
“The first beach that I stepped onto–I didn’t even have to try to find the spot–I stepped onto the first beach and it was lining the shoreline. I’m talking, probably like hundreds of fish just piled on top of each other, and as the waves pushed in you could see them push into them — it’s just insane.
“They’re out there floating in the water. They’re out there on the shoreline. Million-dollar homes have seas of dead fish in their backyard views of the water. And what’s happening is there’s smaller fish, there’s bigger fish. A goliath grouper had been taken out of the water — they had to use heavy machinery to get that out. Numerous dolphins are affected by this.”
It’s Affecting More Than Just The Fish
“Over 800 manatees, I think this year, have died from red tide, which is a record-breaking number. A full-grown sea turtle washed ashore on the beach this morning. It’s affecting more than just the fish — even so to where, like, if you’re exposed to the water for too long, you can experience puffy eyes and an irritated throat because of it.
“People don’t realize that it’s a bigger issue than just killing fish.”
Editor’s note: When you are around red tide, it feels a bit like you have a cold.
Why Did The State Of Florida Decide To Dump The Toxic Wastewater Into The Ocean?
I really wanted to understand why a state government, whose job is supposed to care for its citizens’ safety, would choose to poison its own bay. Caulin shared his thoughts.
“They had already started taking action far past the point of return. I think they’re still under investigation. The owner of Piney Point was the one responsible for keeping the facility up to par. Instead, he took a lot of shortcuts and a lot of breaks, and the Florida government also is very lenient with what you’re allowed to dump into the water.
“They kind of prioritized company profits over pollution — that’s what seems to be happening. It got to the point where it started to crack and there was kind of nothing else they could do. I remember making a video about it at the time thinking that their best option was to dump the water. It’s so absurd and it’s infuriating because it could have been stopped up to that point. But when it got to that point, it became too late.”
Editor’s note: I live in Manatee County, and I recall an alert coming across my phone warning that toxic waste could start rolling across part of the county at any moment. “Luckily,” the alternative worked — dumping toxic waste into the bay.
Message To The State Of Florida
Not only is this a horrendous act, but the State of Florida — the government, not the citizens* — should definitely own up to its part in creating this ecological disaster. The state’s leniency on pollution echoes those of other red states where state governments prioritize profits over people and our planet. Caulin has a message for the state government:
“Stop picking profits over pollution and prioritize preservation. Stop downplaying the actual severity of what’s happening here just to save tourism. Florida relies a lot on tourism for the money that generates its economy. The tourism is going to stop if we continue to treat our state as a free for all dumping land.”
(*Editor’s note: As a Floridian, I think the blame is squarely on the citizens as well. The state has been electing extreme right-wing Republicans for years. In fact, a former Republican Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, is now a Democrat because the party has long left his sense of what is good and driven itself toward total lack of respect for US democracy, the health of its citizens, basic public policy that the vast majority of people support, and preservation of the things that make Florida great. More citizens should have noticed this by now and drained the swamp of GOP corruption.)
Officials Need To Be Held Accountable
Another TikTok user, @Chastenation, shared her video and it came up on my FYP after I’d interacted with Caulin’s and his friend’s videos. “Our fishery is dying!!! We need the ‘elected officials’ to be held accountable,” she wrote in her caption. Her location was the beach across from Tampa Bay and she explained that the wastewater leakage combined with the red tide was what was killing the fish. She fishes for a living.
In her video, she’s walking along the beach with dead fish in the background as far as the eye can see. “The entire beach is covered,” she said, as she pulled a dead grouper from the waves and added it to a pile with other dead fish.
“We need these elected officials to be held accountable because this is where we live, and I’m gonna be honest — but I don’t want to live like this. This is how I make my living and it’s all dead.”
As a writer who cares about this planet and our impact on it, I felt it was my duty to uplift the voices of Caulin and anyone else out there trying to raise awareness. This is a huge crisis in Florida and it seems that either no one is taking it seriously or that it is being heavily downplayed by the officials. Even TikTok is flagging Caulin’s videos as “containing sensitive material.”
We need to stop killing our planet. No, let me rephrase: Those in power who have the authority to run countries and states need to stop destroying our planet in the name of corporate greed.
You can watch all of Caulin’s videos here.