Florida says Piney Point will be under new management

A Tampa attorney will soon take charge of the site, replacing the owner who is being sued by the state after millions of polluted gallons were released into Tampa Bay.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack, far, background, and water management at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in March.
A view of a phosphogypsum stack, far, background, and water management at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in March. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published Aug. 26, 2021|Updated Aug. 26, 2021

A judge has ordered that an independent receiver manage the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property amid fears more polluted water could be released from the site, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

That means HRK Holdings, the company that owns the property and was at the helm this spring when 215 million gallons of wastewater were dumped into Tampa Bay, is no longer in charge.

Instead, Tampa lawyer Herb Donica will be given control, according to an agreement filed in court Wednesday. He has a history at Piney Point, having worked with the bankruptcy trustee for its one-time owner, Mulberry Corp., which folded two decades ago.

Herb Donica is a Tampa lawyer who has been appointed receiver over the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property.
Herb Donica is a Tampa lawyer who has been appointed receiver over the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property. [ Donica Law Firm ]

“I have one goal, and that’s to shut this thing down and make it safe,” Donica told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday. He said he hasn’t worked at Piney Point since the summer of 2006. Donica plans to take over managing the property on Monday and said he has been reviewing paperwork and news articles about the situation in preparation.

The state sued HRK Holdings in Manatee County circuit court earlier this month to hold the firm responsible, clean up the property and ultimately close Piney Point. As part of that lawsuit, the agency requested a third-party be tapped to oversee work at the site.

HRK Holdings’ principal owner did not answer a call or return a text seeking comment. His attorney did not reply to a voice message or email. The company has not commented to the Times since April.

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

Donica said state officials approached him about stepping in as receiver. His initial task will be to keep the site safe and avoid more leaks in the near future. Donica first started working on Piney Point matters in 2001.

“I wake up today 20 years later, and we’re still letting water out on an emergency basis,” he said. “Everybody is walking around crazy mad about that. In a way, nothing’s changed.”

Over time, Donica will be charged with devising a plan to shut down Piney Point forever. That will involve working closely with engineers, public agencies and builders.

The state will bear many of the costs. The Department of Environmental Protection said it has already spent tens of millions responding to the crisis. In its lawsuit against HRK Holdings, the agency is seeking damages and to recoup money.

Donica said some funding for his work could eventually come from the federal government. The Department of Environmental Protection will continue regulating Piney Point as he handles day-to-day operations.

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

The old plant property holds stacks of phosphogypsum, a radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer industry. Within those stacks sit large reservoirs of polluted water — some of it leftover from the manufacturing process. One of those reservoirs sprung a leak this spring when a plastic liner tore, prompting fears of a collapse that threatened to flood the surrounding community with hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater.

To relieve pressure, the state allowed HRK Holdings to pump polluted water into the bay. The release injected a massive load of nitrogen that scientists say could have exacerbated a toxic Red Tide that afflicted the region this summer.

An overhead view of the Piney Point site in April.
An overhead view of the Piney Point site in April. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

More discharges could occur over the next several months, the state has said, depending on how much rain Piney Point receives during storm season and how quickly crews can dispose of water. Any future release will be less polluted, according to the state, because of ongoing efforts to treat the wastewater and reduce levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.

If the ponds exceed capacities, water could flow into Bishop Harbor — a treasured coastal habitat — or into the surrounding community, posing what the Department of Environmental Protection has called “an imminent threat to public health and safety and the environment.”

The site has received more than 24 inches of rain since the start of June, according to the state. It has room for roughly another 11 inches, and is expected to receive at least another 9 inches by the end of September. Piney Point is in Manatee County off U.S. 41, near the Hillsborough County line.

Donica said he does not know how long it will take to shutter the property, or how much it will cost.

The state sought to remove HRK Holdings from a key decision-making role because it said the owner had failed to meet obligations for managing Piney Point.

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

The company was supposed to get rid of contaminated water by February 2019, according to the state. It also broke an agreement, the environmental agency said, by not depositing enough money into an account to ensure the property’s future maintenance and by violating limits for contaminants found in groundwater at the site.

HRK Holdings has recently been subject to a foreclosure case, and its mortgage holder was one of several parties that agreed to let Donica assume management responsibilities, a court record shows. HRK Holdings also signed onto the receiver agreement. The company had previously filed for bankruptcy protection but has since emerged from that process.

Donica is better positioned to oversee closing Piney Point than HRK, he said, because unlike the firm, he is not concerned with making money off the property.

“I don’t have the competing interest of shareholders and profit motive, et cetera,” he said.

He is not the first receiver to work at Piney Point. After Mulberry Corp. failed, the state worked with a court-appointed third party to drain wastewater and clean up the phosphogypsum stacks. The idea then was for a private owner to eventually take over the burden of managing the property long-term, a concept that Donica said no longer seems palatable.

The state did not previously provide enough funding to fully close Piney Point, he said.

“I’m not going to rest until we get the thing under control,” Donica said. “The last 20 years everybody’s got up and delivered their sermon about how this must stop. Piney Point’s got to be made safe. And not one of them brought a bag of money with them.”

This time, he said, he has been assured the money will be there.