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Executives turn their backs on the Piney Point disaster

Published Aug. 18, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

It is our unwavering intention to run Piney Point to the highest standards allowed by our permits for it to be safe and in compliance with environmental regulations.

_ 1997 statement by Robert C. Stewart, senior vice president of phosphate operator Mulberry Corp.

We're not bailing out on this. We believe this is short-term, and we hope to take back full responsibility for maintaining the facilities.

_ 2001 statement by Mulberry CEO Philip Rinaldi after his company filed for bankruptcy protection.

Now, I know the phosphate industry is an entrenched and powerful player in laissez-faire Florida. But the story of Mulberry Corp. and the ease with which it fled two years ago from the environmental disaster at its Piney Point phosphate plant is one big load of . . . fertilizer.

Located just south of the Hillsborough-Manatee county line, Piney Point is a 700-acre site well chronicled earlier this summer as "one of the biggest environmental threats in Florida history" in a front page story by St. Petersburg Times reporters Craig Pittman, Julie Hauserman and Candace Rondeaux. The phosphate plant's woes also have received ample coverage for more than a decade in neighboring newspapers in Tampa, Bradenton, Sarasota and Lakeland.

My interest here is less on the threats of pollution and more on corporate responsibility. After taking control of Piney Point, Mulberry later declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and simply walked away after dumping the phosphate plant and its problems on state regulators. The price tag to clean up the billion-gallon mess: $140-million and counting.

The business executives, now scattered and working in the New York area or Texas, never should have left. And state regulators should not have been so lax in letting them go. It's one sorry precedent.

Piney Point, of course, is the abandoned phosphate plant whose vast acidic wastewaters are rising with our heavy rains and threatening to again flood a sensitive area of Tampa Bay. State officials endorsed a bizarre solution of treating the waste, loading millions of gallons on a barge called New York and spraying it well offshore over a 2,800-square-mile area of the gulf. To further help, trucks carry partially treated liquid to nearby municipal and industrial treatment plants, and to St. Petersburg for use as reclaimed water.

Alas, the plan has struggled at times because heavy rainstorms made the nearly brimming Piney Point pools rise faster than wastewater could be removed. Regulators say they have some leeway now but are ready, if necessary, for emergency discharges of partially treated water into Tampa Bay.

How did things get so out of hand?

The phosphate plant near Palmetto first opened in the 1960s and was run by multiple owners with a very mixed history of spills and leaks. In 1989, under the control of Royster Phosphates, a cloud of toxic fumes was discharged, which forced the evacuation of Port Manatee, the county stockade and about 400 residents.

By the spring of 1991, the Royster Co. of Norfolk, Va., the parent company of Royster Phosphates, filed for bankruptcy protection. The plant closed in 1992.

But in 1993, a Netherlands-based, New York-run company called Fertilizer Development Investments bought both the Manatee site, renamed Piney Point Phosphates, and its parent, Mulberry Phosphates. The acquiring company was run by chairman and French investor Judas Azuelos. Mulberry was put in the hands of president and CEO Philip Rinaldi. Azuelos and Rinaldi were partners in Seminole Fertilizer Corp.'s $260-million purchase in 1988 of W.R. Grace & Co.'s Polk County phosphate business.

Joining them at Mulberry was phosphate veteran Robert Stewart, who served as chief operating officer.

For a while, everything seemed in order. Mulberry announced big plans to reopen Piney Point's phosphate operations and promised it would take special care to avoid the spills that had tainted the plant for so many years within the local community.

"It is our unwavering intention to run Piney Point to the highest standards allowed by our permits for it to be safe and in compliance with environmental regulations," COO Stewart said in a 1997 statement.

It did not work out that way. The same year, a dam breach at a sister plant in Polk County spilled 50-million gallons of contaminated water into the Alafia River, which flows into Tampa Bay.

With the phosphate industry depressed and Mulberry Corp. in a financial tailspin, it became clear the company was neglecting Piney Point and could (or would) not pay the electric bill to keep critical pumps running. On Jan. 30, 2001, after giving warning to regulators, the company walked away from the Manatee site.

In early February 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took charge. Within days, Mulberry Corp. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Piney Point is now a ward of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Rinaldi at first insisted Mulberry's bankruptcy status did not mean it was abandoning its sites.

"We're not bailing out on this," he said. "We believe this is short-term, and we hope to take back full responsibility for maintaining the facilities."

It was a short-lived commitment.

After telling one newspaper earlier this year that he has no remorse over Piney Point _ "no guilt at all" _ Rinaldi now lives in a wealthy New Jersey neighborhood and works as president of P.L. Rinaldi & Associates, a "business development company."

Stewart and two other Mulberry managers were last seen in Texas working outside Houston for Agrifos Fertilizer, which like the Florida company reportedly has a history of financial and environmental problems.

As for Azuelos's whereabouts, no one seems sure. A former Mulberry board member told the Bradenton Herald in May that the French investor is in Morocco tending another of his phosphate-fertilizer projects.

No doubt, state regulators are full of excuses for letting Mulberry escape the Piney Point disaster with so few raps on its knuckles. And Mulberry's execs seem only too happy to pursue the next business deal with nary a glance back at a high-priced mess threatening Tampa Bay _ one that never should have happened.

That's no way for grownups to act.

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at or (727) 893-8405.


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