Hillsborough Commission ponders legal remedies for Piney Point spill

Eco-tourism industry and even Hillsborough’s own water customers could feel economic impact, commissioners say
Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park, home to mangroves and sea grass beds, is in southern Hillsborough County.
Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park, home to mangroves and sea grass beds, is in southern Hillsborough County.
Published April 7, 2021|Updated April 7, 2021

TAMPA — Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White initially said he had a single question about the Piney Point contaminated wastewater spill: Who’s to blame here?

But he thought better of asking it.

“The more I think about a situation like this, assigning blame can be complex,” White told the rest of the Hillsborough Commission Wednesday afternoon.

But that didn’t stop White from issuing marching orders to County Attorney Christine Beck.

“Be on standby to prepare for any legal recourse that might be necessary here,” he said.

The commission is considering legal remedies because the closed Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County is near the Hillsborough border. Quoting state figures, Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commissioner Director Janet Dougherty said at mid-day, 170 million gallons of wastewater have been released into the channel at Port Manatee on Tampa Bay. The state later updated that figure to 173 million gallons. The leaking reservoir held approximately 480 million gallons before the releases began.

Related: Evacuation over as officials say risk from Piney Point has lowered

The plant is in close proximity to the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve, where Hillsborough County, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Tampa Port Authority spent 20 years restoring 500 acres of damaged wetlands, uplands and coastal habitats to improve the health of sea life and Tampa Bay. But the concern extended beyond wetlands to include wallets.

“This is not only an environmental disaster, but there will potentially be an economic impact here,” White said.

Businesses tied to the eco-tourism industry like recreational fishing guides could feel the economic punch from the breeched reservoir, that comes on the heels of a 2018 red tide bloom and then the year-old COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

The county’s water utility customers might feel a similar pinch, said Commissioner Harry Cohen, who sits on Tampa Bay Water’s board of directors. The regional water supplier told its directors it could potentially close its desalination plant. The plant, located in the Big Bend area of Hillsborough, can provide up to 25 million gallons day of drinking water to the region.

Losing that capacity could compromise the county’s long-term water distribution plans at a time residents in southern Hillsborough County already face water restrictions and low pressure during periods of high demand.

“Our ratepayers may have a price to pay for this disaster, even if it’s just a temporary shut down of that plant,” Cohen said.

The site is owned by HRK Holdings, which said in an earlier statement that it has worked under oversight from the Department of Environmental Protection and is involved in litigation over what it says was defective design and installation of the reservoir liner.

Sam Elrabi, director of the Environmental Protection Commission’s water division, said a series of water samples showed near normal water quality and there was no evidence of a fish kill nor damaged aquatic plants.

“Things seem to be normal,” he said, but cautioned the long-term implications could include algae blooms and other impacts.

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“How intense? We don’t know,” said Elrabi. “... It’s going to be awhile before we gauge the impact of this.”

The discharged water had been diluted by both seawater and rainwater and had lower levels of contaminants than the water in the property’s other two ponds.

“If you have a best case scenario of one of the three ponds to be released, you pick this one,” Elrabi told commissioners, but added, “I wouldn’t drink it. It’s bad water.”

Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.