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Environmentalists plan to sue state, port and property owner over Piney Point

They say officials let risks persist in spite of warnings about the danger to Tampa Bay.
A drone image shows the Piney Point site last month.
A drone image shows the Piney Point site last month. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 18
Updated May 18

Just over a month after millions of gallons of wastewater were pumped from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site into Tampa Bay, environmental groups said Tuesday they plan to sue, claiming state and local leaders and the property owner failed to protect the region.

The groups in a letter announced they intend to file a case against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Manatee County Port Authority and landowner HRK Holdings.

Related: Failure at Piney Point: Florida let environmental risk fester despite warnings

“It’s not just one entity that is responsible for the problems created at Piney Point,” said Glenn Compton, chair of the local environmental advocacy group ManaSota-88. “It’s a culmination of a lot of mismanagement that’s taken place for decades.”

Bringing the case would be the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation. Their notice gives state and local leaders as well as HRK Holdings at least a couple of months to respond to some of the claims before they land in federal court, as required by law. Scientists are still tracking the effects of pollution from Piney Point, but the groups say they worry about damage to Tampa Bay and to groundwater around the old plant.

A spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection said “this site is privately owned by HRK Holdings Inc., who is responsible for the site’s short and long-term care in accordance with all state regulations.”

“While we cannot comment on pending litigation, what I can tell you is the department is committed to holding HRK Holdings Inc. and all involved parties accountable for this event, as well as ensuring the closure of this site once and for all so that this is the final chapter of Piney Point,” said the spokesperson, Alexandra Kuchta.

The principal owner of HRK did not answer a call or immediately reply to a text message. A spokesperson for the port said “we have turned the matter over to legal counsel.”

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

The challengers say they want to secure an order ensuring wastewater will be removed from Piney Point for good, to get any environmental damages tied to the release addressed and to recoup legal fees or costs.

Their lawyers cited several provisions, including the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, in the letter. The argument centers on the idea that the state, which previously managed Piney Point through a court-appointed receiver and still regulates the site, has let risks persist in spite of warnings that the old fertilizer plant is a threat to Tampa Bay. HRK Holdings, as the owner, is similarly responsible for allowing the continuing danger, environmentalists say. And like the state, the Manatee County Port Authority — which oversees Port Manatee — agreed with putting dredge materials on the property in the face of reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that Piney Point’s phosphogypsum stacks were ill-suited for the concept.

Each organization contributed “to an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment,” according to the notice.

State and local officials were warned within the last year and a half that wastewater ponds were approaching capacity at Piney Point and a plastic liner holding in water could fail, the lawyers wrote.

Phosphogypsum, piled in bulky heaps at Piney Point, is a substance left after breaking down phosphate for fertilizer. It is held in stacks across Central Florida, with monitoring and restrictions on how it can be used because of the radioactivity levels of the material. Stacks can also hold ponds of polluted water.

“The big picture issue for us is that this is a really dangerous industry for Florida made worse by the state’s oversight,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Piney Point disaster is a helpful illustration of that regulatory failure.”

Related: Environmentalists sue over plan to allow radioactive phosphogypsum in roads

About 215 million gallons of polluted water from the site was pumped into Tampa Bay last month, under a state order, to avoid a potential collapse of a leaking reservoir. Environmental officials described the waste as a combination of a byproduct from fertilizer manufacturing, seawater and rainwater. It carried nutrients, including nitrogen, that scientists say could fuel algal blooms.

Such blooms, the lawyers wrote, could hurt animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, like sea turtles and manatees.

Related: Red Tide is cause of concern near Piney Point discharge in Tampa Bay

Some of the groups over the last year have brought other challenges around the fertilizer industry. Florida is a hub for mining and processing phosphate, a key part of making fertilizer.

Months ago, environmentalists filed a case over a federal decision to permit the use of phosphogypsum in road-building. They have also asked the Environmental Protection Agency to take on greater oversight of Florida’s gypsum operations.