Florida fears rain, hurricanes could cause Piney Point pollution to overflow

The state wants a judge to appoint an independent receiver to clean up the Manatee County property.
An overhead image from a drone shows the Piney Point site in April.
An overhead image from a drone shows the Piney Point site in April. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Aug. 16, 2021|Updated Aug. 16, 2021

State officials fear summer rains and hurricane season could cause the polluted reservoirs at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property to overflow.

That’s why the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is asking a Manatee County circuit judge to hold an emergency hearing and appoint an independent receiver to oversee the site, which is owned by a company called HRK Holdings.

The site and its owner are at the center of an environmental crisis after a leaking pond this spring led to the evacuation of nearby homes and caused 215 million gallons of polluted water to be pumped into Tampa Bay. The state sued Piney Point’s owner earlier this month seeking damages and help shutting down the site. It is now trying to accelerate that process.

“The hurricane and rainy seasons have begun, and HRK’s continuing failure in its duty to ensure adequate water management by providing sufficient storage capacity at the site to prevent flooding, overtopping of lined areas and uncontrolled or untreated discharges has made the appointment of a receiver urgent,” the environmental agency’s lawyer wrote in a motion filed Saturday.

Related: Florida sues Piney Point owner over polluted Tampa Bay discharge

If the ponds at the site are overtopped, water could flow into nearby Bishop Harbor — a key habitat for marine life — and the surrounding community, posing “an imminent threat to public health and safety and the environment,” according to a statement from the Department of Environmental Protection.

The Piney Point property has received 22 inches of rain since the start of June, according to the state’s motion. Officials say that’s equivalent to 169 million gallons of water. Meanwhile, the state estimates more than an additional 60 million gallons of water could hit the site through September, based on average rainfall for the coming weeks.

“The Department estimates that the facility currently only has sufficient storage capacity to hold only an additional 52 million gallons of water (the equivalent of less than 10 inches of rainfall),” the lawyer wrote.

Related: Florida is suing Piney Point’s owners. Is the state also to blame?

A receiver could maintain the site in the short-term and work toward a long-term plan to drain the ponds at Piney Point entirely, according to the agency.

The property still holds high piles of phosphogypsum, a radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer industry. Within the phosphogypsum stack system sit large reservoirs of contaminated water. Rain adds to those ponds, and HRK Holdings has reported for years that it has struggled to keep pace with treating and disposing of water.

When the reservoir leaked this spring, it threatened to send the polluted water rushing into nearby neighborhoods. To avoid that, the state let millions of gallons be discharged into the bay. The release introduced what is estimated to be a year’s worth of nitrogen for lower Tampa Bay into that part of the estuary in just over a week.

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

The region has since suffered a bad Red Tide bloom, which scientists say could have been exacerbated by contamination from Piney Point.

As of this weekend, the reservoir that suffered the leak held about 267 million gallons of water, according to the state. A tear in the pond’s plastic liner was patched with a steel plate.

HRK Holdings, according to the state’s lawyer, cannot afford to keep Piney Point safe and drain the wastewater for good. The company’s principal owner did not answer a call or reply to a text from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment.

If a judge appoints a receiver, the Department of Environmental Protection said it will pay for costs with funding from the Legislature. Elected officials have talked about spending $100 million or more to shutter Piney Point.

Related: Red Tide is further offshore. Thank the wind and sea currents.