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Environmentalists’ Piney Point lawsuit paused for six months

A federal judge is reluctant to interfere in cleaning up the site “so long as it appears the state actors continue to operate in good faith.”
Aerial photo of the phosphogypsum stacks at the former Piney Point phosphate plant in April 2021, before 215 million gallons of wastewater was released into Tampa Bay.
Aerial photo of the phosphogypsum stacks at the former Piney Point phosphate plant in April 2021, before 215 million gallons of wastewater was released into Tampa Bay. [ TIFFANY TOMPKINS | Bradenton Herald ]
Published Mar. 29

TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge has put on hold a lawsuit that environmental groups filed last year after massive amounts of wastewater were discharged from a former phosphate plant site to avert a potential catastrophe.

U.S. District Judge William Jung put a six-month stay on the lawsuit, as a court-ordered receiver in a separate state case works to close the Piney Point site in Manatee County.

Jung, in an order dated Friday and posted online Monday, wrote that the state court system “already has a running start on the closure of Piney Point” and pointed to $100 million that the Legislature approved last year to help clean up the site.

“As plaintiffs (the environmental groups) admitted at oral argument, there is no evidence the receiver is operating in bad faith,” Jung wrote in the 18-page order. “So long as it appears the state actors continue to operate in good faith, this federal court is reluctant to interfere with these ongoing state endeavors. Finally, a stay may simplify the issues of this case. The state-court receiver has already taken over daily operations of the site and is working to assemble a team of experts. His reports will shed light on the scope of the alleged environmental damage, as well as the best ways to remediate it.”

Related: Piney Point cleanup, closure might take three years or longer

The Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, Manasota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation filed the federal lawsuit, alleging that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other defendants long mishandled the site.

The lawsuit came after the discharge of what the environmental groups said were about 215 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay last April because of fears about a potentially catastrophic breach of a reservoir at the site. The lawsuit said the discharges, in part, caused harmful algae blooms and fish kills. Also, nearby residents had to be temporarily evacuated because of fears of a breach.

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

The lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Clean Water Act and a law known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In addition to the Department of Environmental Protection, other defendants are Gov. Ron DeSantis, property owner HRK Holdings, LLC and the Manatee County Port Authority.

Piney Point includes hazardous phosphogypsum stacks, a byproduct of phosphate production, which took place at the site from 1966 to 1999. Associated wastewater is stored at the site.

In his order, Jung pointed to a foreclosure lawsuit filed in 2020 in state court against HRK by Fortress 2020 Landco LLC, which holds a mortgage on the site. The receiver was appointed in August as part of that lawsuit.

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

The Department of Environmental Protection and other defendants late last year asked Jung to dismiss the federal lawsuit. But in the order issuing a six-month stay, he said the motions for dismissal were moot.

“(A) stay pursuant to inherent judicial authority does not contemplate abdication of the federal court’s duty to resolve a case properly before it,” Jung wrote. “Rather, it represents a pause in that resolution while another forum determines an issue that promises to simplify or otherwise assist the federal litigation.”

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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