Environmentalists file federal lawsuit in Piney Point disaster

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to oversee the clean-up and closure of the old Manatee County fertilizer plant.
An overhead image of the Piney Point phosphogypsum complex in Manatee County in April.
An overhead image of the Piney Point phosphogypsum complex in Manatee County in April. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published June 24, 2021|Updated July 19, 2021

As promised, a consortium of environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against public officials and a private owner they blame for the Piney Point disaster that saw 215 million gallons of polluted water pumped into Tampa Bay.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to oversee the clean-up, closure and investigation of the old Piney Point fertilizer plant site in Manatee County and ensure the phosphogypsum stacks and wastewater are properly disposed of before an “uncontrolled release of hazardous and radioactive pollution.”

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

The lawsuit names Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary Shawn Hamilton (who took over earlier this month), the Manatee County Port Authority and the property’s owner, HRK Holdings, LLC.

It blames the April wastewater discharge on “past and present handling, storage, treatment, transportation and disposal of solid and hazardous waste at Piney Point.”

The phosphogypsum and wastewater there remains an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment,” according to the lawsuit filed in the Middle District of Florida by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and the Our Children’s Earth Foundation.

“The Piney Point disaster is Exhibit A in a long list of Florida’s failures to protect our water and wildlife from the harms of phosphogypsum,” said a statement from Jaclyn Lopez, the Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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

The lawsuit asks a court to ensure Piney Point is cleaned up in accordance with the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a 1976 law that governs how hazardous waste is disposed of in the U.S., and to end the threat to people and animals, including species such as manatees and sea turtles.

The Manatee County Port Authority said Thursday it does not comment on pending litigation. The Department of Environmental Protection did not offer comment and the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The owner of HRK Holdings did not respond to a text message seeking comment.

When the environmental groups announced their plans to sue in May, Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Alexandra Kuchta told the Tampa Bay Times that the agency intends to close Piney Point and hold HRK Holdings responsible.

“While we cannot comment on pending litigation,” she said, “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.”