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A regulatory disaster

Florida is stuck with a mountain of acidic phosphate waste at the edge of Bishop Harbor and a cleanup tab that is $140-million and growing, but forget what environmentalists are saying. The most damning assessment of the state's regulatory collapse at the Piney Point fertilizer plant comes from the industry itself.

"Did they (state regulators) have enough authority to shut Piney Point down? I think they did," says Bob Hugli, senior vice president of the Florida Phosphate Council. "I don't know why they waited so long."

"We were not surprised they (Piney Point) failed," CF Industries executive Stephen Wilson once wrote DEP, "and would like to understand how they could possibly have met the present financial responsibility standards."

The truth is that the state Department of Environmental Protection knew for at least six years that Mulberry Corp. was struggling at Piney Point, that the company was failing to meet environmental and financial standards, that it might go out of business and leave the state holding a costly, dirty, dangerous bag. As St. Petersburg Times writers Craig Pittman, Julie Hauserman and Candace Rondeaux documented on Sunday, DEP actively looked the other way. The crisis that a top state regulator now calls "one of the biggest environmental threats in Florida history" was foreseeable, perhaps preventable.

So why is it, in a state government that constantly speaks of accountability, that no one is being held responsible?

The threat from phosphogypsum stacks is not theoretical. They tower over the landscape, some 70 feet tall, and hold hundreds of millions of gallons of acid water. Spills and waste dumping from Piney Point during 1967 and 1970 resulted in a series of fish kills in Bishop Harbor. A 1997 spill at a Mulberry waste stack killed more than 1-million fish in the Alafia River.

State regulators are responsible for making sure the stacks are in active use, and therefore are being maintained, pumped and monitored. Through a series of bankruptcies and ownership changes throughout the 1990s, though, DEP merely watched as the Piney Point stack sat idle and became more menacing. DEP even allowed the company to submit unaudited financial statements. In January 2001, roughly a decade after one DEP staffer asked his bosses to order the stack closed, the company walked away, leaving a mountain of trouble.

As the state now prepares to ship the waste water out to the Gulf of Mexico, there is little evidence that either regulators or lawmakers are taking responsibility. The cleanup costs will empty a fund set up to pay for phosphate restoration activities, yet the Legislature failed this year to increase a phosphate severance tax that it reduced in 1999 _ even though the industry supports the increase. Also failing to pass were tougher penalties for phosphate companies that misrepresent their financial status and clearer deadlines on when the state can act.

What does it say, as phosphate miners move their dredges southward in Florida, that the regulators and lawmakers are so complacent that the industry itself is complaining?