DeSantis steering more money to Piney Point, wants to close site

“We want this to be the last chapter,” governor says.
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the situation at Piney Point at a press conference in Manatee County on April 4.
Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses the situation at Piney Point at a press conference in Manatee County on April 4. [ LUIS SANTANA | Luis Santana ]
Published April 13, 2021|Updated April 13, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis is steering another $15.4 million toward cleaning up polluted water at the old Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County, where a leak in recent weeks has prompted the release of more than 200 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

“We want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story,” the governor said at a news conference in Manatee on Tuesday. He said the money will be freed up by redirecting existing appropriations to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He did not specify what that money was meant for originally. It is supposed to help pay for treating wastewater on the site before any more is pumped to Tampa Bay.

DeSantis said he is also charging state scientists and engineers with devising a plan “to close Piney Point.”

The releases began two weeks ago after the property’s owner, HRK Holdings, reported a leak in a reservoir holding more than 450 million gallons of wastewater. State regulators approved discharges of water from the polluted pond through Port Manatee, citing concern that pressure from the leak could cause berms to burst, touching off a catastrophic flood.

Related: Forecasting what comes next from Piney Point for Tampa Bay

About 215 million gallons of wastewater have been released into Tampa Bay through the port, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The water carries high levels of nutrients like nitrogen, which threaten to upset the balance of the local estuary. Scientists worry the discharge could fuel harmful algal blooms that lead to fish kills.

What does closure look like? DeSantis did not describe a specific vision Tuesday.

Piney Point was once home to a phosphate processing plant. That operation left polluted water and phosphogypsum stacks, which are made up of a radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer industry. It has long loomed as an environmental threat to the region.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said responsibility for Piney Point has previously traded hands and the site has been reinvented without being truly shut down.

“Let’s not come up with a new business plan to have some company come in and support a future business endeavor on the site,” Valenstein said. “Let’s clean the site up and end it once and for all.”

Related: Piney Point from 1966-present: On the edge of disaster

HRK Holdings bought the property in 2006 and later agreed to take on materials from a dredging project at the port in 2011, using plastic-lined reservoirs within Piney Point’s phosphogypsum stacks. A break in a liner at the time preceded the release of millions of gallons of water.

A separated seam in a plastic liner may have triggered the latest crisis. The pond, according to the state, contains a mix of seawater from the dredging project, rainwater and a polluted leftover from the fertilizer production process.

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HRK Holdings, in a statement last week, said the liner was installed before it took over Piney Point. The company operates under an agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection and oversight from the agency.

Looking back, Valenstein said: “Everyone scratches their head: What made sense with having HRK come in and do this more than a decade ago? How did that happen? The more I learn the less I understand that.”

Aerial view overlooking the site of the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
Aerial view overlooking the site of the old Piney Point phosphate plant. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater remain at Piney Point.

State senators have agreed to put $3 million dollars toward cleaning it up, a small chunk of what could amount to $200 million directed to the effort. Senate President Wilton Simpson said he hopes to have a plan for closing the site by the end of the year. Manatee County commissioners have voted to move ahead with a concept that could see a well built on county property across from Piney Point, to pump treated wastewater deep underground.

Since it took over the property, HRK has sold off chunks of land and offered industrial space for lease across from the port.

The state is planning to build a legal case against the company, Valenstein said. “We are preparing as rigorous a legal team as you have seen here on the ground with scientists and engineers to absolutely make certain that we are moving forward and putting every effort to hold folks accountable regardless or not of a particular corporation’s circumstances.”

Times staff writers Christopher O’Donnell and Bethany Barnes contributed to this report.