Florida sues Piney Point owner over polluted Tampa Bay discharge

The Department of Environmental Protection says it will hold HRK Holdings accountable and seek damages.
Effluent flows from a pipe into a drainage ditch near the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in April.
Effluent flows from a pipe into a drainage ditch near the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in April. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 5, 2021|Updated Aug. 8, 2021

Florida’s lead environmental agency is suing the owner of the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property over the leak that set off an emergency and led to 215 million gallons of polluted water being pumped into Tampa Bay earlier this year.

“Today, the department took a pivotal step to ensure this is the final chapter for the Piney Point site,” said Shawn Hamilton, interim secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, in a statement issued late Thursday. He said the agency is looking to enforce both state environmental laws and regulatory agreements with the site’s owner, a company called HRK Holdings.

Florida “is seeking the maximum allowable penalties and recovery of costs and damages,” according to Hamilton.

The civil suit was filed in a Manatee County circuit court.

The principal owner of HRK Holdings did not answer a call or text from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment. A recording said his voice mailbox was full.

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

The state is asking the court to appoint a receiver to oversee closure of the property. It is also seeking financial penalties including: $50,000 a day for violating a consent order that called for the polluted water to be removed from the site by 2019 and $15,000 per day for violating surface and groundwater standards and failing to meet financial assurance requirements.

Florida had spent $45.7 million on emergency contracting at Piney Point as of July 15, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The agency is also trying to recoup that money, it said in a frequently asked questions document distributed Thursday.

The Piney Point site once housed a plant where manufacturers processed phosphate to make an ingredient in fertilizer. That work left a byproduct called phosphogypsum, a chalky substance that federal environmental officials require to be held in strictly monitored stacks because it is radioactive. The gypsum at Piney Point rises high above U.S. 41, covering about 466 acres across from Port Manatee, near the Hillsborough-Manatee county line.

Enormous ponds of contaminated water sit within the stacks, including some leftover water used in the manufacturing process.

Fertilizer has not been made at Piney Point for a couple of decades, but the property has remained an environmental threat sitting at the edge of Tampa Bay.

Related: Evacuations expand as Manatee phosphate plant collapse ‘imminent’

When the plant’s owner went out of business about 20 years ago, the state got stuck overseeing the property through a court-appointed receiver. Piney Point was a boondoggle, full of acidic wastewater that had leaked and spilled before, damaging the nearby estuary.

Regulators worked for years to drain tainted water at the site and bring Piney Point to a close. But they never did. Instead, contractors got rid of some water and installed plastic liners over the phosphogypsum stacks so the property could one day store other materials in an effort to make something useful out of the dump. Eventually HRK Holdings bought the property.

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One pond sprung a leak in March when its plastic liner tore. Engineers feared the whole reservoir would collapse, spewing a flood of hundreds of millions of gallons of contaminated water into surrounding neighborhoods.

The Department of Environmental Protection allowed HRK Holdings to pump water for days into Tampa Bay to relieve pressure on the stack.

Related: Could Tampa Bay’s Red Tide be connected to Piney Point disaster?

High levels of nitrogen in that wastewater, according to scientists, may now be helping to feed a Red Tide bloom that has killed hundreds of tons of fish, sickened people and hampered the tourism industry’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“That things got so bad at Piney Point that polluted water had to be discharged into Tampa Bay to avoid an even more catastrophic failure sits squarely on the shoulders of FDEP,” said a statement from Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Her group is involved in a separate, federal lawsuit against parties including the state and HRK Holdings.

“FDEP’s lawsuit acknowledges that the Piney Point disaster has damaged our water and aquatic life, and that the gypstack poses an imminent hazard,” Lopez said. “These admissions underscore how important proper regulation of gypstacks is, which ironically is precisely FDEP’s job.”

Hamilton, Florida’s top environmental official, said in his statement that “DEP’s priority continues to be the protection of human health and safety and the minimization of any potential impacts to the environment.”

Related: In reversal, EPA won’t allow radioactive fertilizer byproduct in roads

For now, HRK Holdings is again in charge of managing water on the property with daily oversight from the state. The reservoir in the middle of the leak holds about 266 million gallons of water, a number that fluctuates and has risen with recent heavy rains.

Piney Point is in a familiar position, with the state requesting for a court-appointed receiver to help lead it safely to an end. Hamilton said a receivership should “pave the way to expediting this process.”

But how long will it take? And how much will it cost? In its frequently asked questions pamphlet, the Department of Environmental Protection said it is too soon to say.