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Hillsborough, Port Tampa Bay, water utility seek link between Piney Point and Red Tide

Hillsborough’s Environmental Protection Commission is told to be prepared to seek legal remedies.
Workers clean up dead fish kill in an Apollo Beach canal. Red Tide-triggered fish kills were reported on Bayshore Boulevard, Apollo Beach and at MacDill Air Force Base earlier this summer. Thursday, the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission said it would seek damages if the Red Tide can be attributed to the Piney Point disaster in the spring.
Workers clean up dead fish kill in an Apollo Beach canal. Red Tide-triggered fish kills were reported on Bayshore Boulevard, Apollo Beach and at MacDill Air Force Base earlier this summer. Thursday, the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission said it would seek damages if the Red Tide can be attributed to the Piney Point disaster in the spring. [ Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission ]
Published Aug. 19

TAMPA — There could be a long line of litigants suing the owners of the closed fertilizer plant at Piney Point over the contamination discharge earlier this year.

Two weeks after the state of Florida filed suit in Manatee Circuit Court against property owner HRK Holdings, Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White said the county’s Environmental Protection Commission should be ready to do likewise. White previously urged Hillsborough County to be similarly prepared if the discharge of 215 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay can be linked directly to the Red Tide blooms and massive fish kills that followed.

White said the Environmental Protection Commission — overseen by county commissioners — should seek costs for clean-ups, remediation and potentially a fund to assist commercial businesses that suffered economic losses.

“I know the science is complex and we have to establish a cause and effect relationship, a definitive one or as definitive as possible, but if we get to that point I would like for staff ... to be prepared,” White said.

His comments Thursday during an Environmental Protection Commission meeting drew immediate endorsements from Commissioners Mariella Smith, Kimberly Overman and Harry Cohen.

“Great, great idea,” said Smith.

Hillsborough isn’t alone in seeking the correlation. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, Port Tampa Bay and Tampa Bay Water — the region’s drinking water utility — also are trying to determine a cause and effect, said Cohen, who sits as a board member of all three agencies.

“Everybody’s got a vested interest in this one way or another,” Cohen said.

Related: Hillsborough ponders legal remedies for Piney Point spill

The Port Authority is concerned about the cruise industry and the risk that future passengers could book elsewhere if the condition of Tampa Bay discourages visitors, Cohen said.

Tampa Bay Water, Cohen added, is concerned about the future of its water desalination plant on Tampa Bay “and whether or not the filters can handle this polluted water that is coming in.”

A pond holding wastewater at Piney Point, just south of the Hillsborough County line, sprung a leak in March when its plastic liner tore. The state Department of Environmental Protection allowed HRK Holdings to pump water for days into Tampa Bay to relieve pressure on the phosphogypsum stack around the reservoir. High levels of nitrogen in that wastewater may have helped feed a Red Tide bloom that killed hundreds of tons of fish, sickened people and hampered the tourism industry’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Related: Florida sues Piney Point owner over polluted water discharge

Thursday, Tom Ash, assistant director of the water division at the Environmental Protection Commission, said it was too soon to directly connect the contaminated water to Red Tide, but “there is a preponderance of evidence, circumstantial evidence, that it did.”

The discharge meant one portion of the estuary, Lower Tampa Bay, received what normally would be a year’s worth of nitrogen in roughly 10 days.

“One thing we are positive about and have been for many years is that nutrients in the Bay tend to feed and exacerbate these kinds of events. ... So what may have been a shorter duration event of Red Tide could perhaps or more likely was perhaps prolonged by this additional influx of nutrients,“ Ash said.

Hillsborough County reported fish kills near downtown Tampa, along Bayshore Boulevard, at MacDill Air Force Base and in residential canals in Apollo Beach.

“It doesn’t take too much to tip things out of balance,” said Ash. “It would seem that this event did that.”