Florida Senate approves $3 million for Piney Point cleanup

It’s the first step toward potentially spending $200 million on the permanent cleanup and closure of the site.
Effluent flows from a pipe into a drainage ditch at Port Manatee South Gate on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Palmetto, Fla., where authorities responding to a leaking wastewater pond at the old Piney Point phosphate plant.
Effluent flows from a pipe into a drainage ditch at Port Manatee South Gate on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in Palmetto, Fla., where authorities responding to a leaking wastewater pond at the old Piney Point phosphate plant. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | AP ]
Published April 7, 2021|Updated April 8, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — State senators on Wednesday assigned $3 million to clean up the Piney Point phosphate plant, the first phase of a potential $200 million effort to permanently close the site that prompted evacuations in Manatee County over the weekend.

“We cannot stand idly by while this environmental hazard is dealt with,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “The funds that we’re appropriating will start us on a pathway to cleaning up what has been recognized as a true mess.”

Wednesday’s appropriation was a fraction of what could be a $200 million project to accomplish the “complete cleanup and closure” of the site. That’s how much Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said this week he wants to spend, using federal pandemic relief dollars.

Any spending on Piney Point would require approval by the Florida House of Representatives, which has not yet taken action. An emergency House committee convened late Wednesday for an update on the site by Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, who told them the state should close the site for good.

“The department feels very strongly that all storage ponds on the site need to be closed,” Valenstein said.

The potential for environmental disaster in Manatee County prompted swift reactions from lawmakers and state officials over the weekend, after a leak was detected in a wastewater pond at the Piney Point phosphate plant, threatening to flood the area with hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water.

Hundreds of Manatee County homes and the first floor of the county jail were evacuated over the weekend while officials scrambled to pump the wastewater from the site. Those evacuation orders were lifted Tuesday after an estimated 165 million gallons of the wastewater were released into the deep channel at Port Manatee on Tampa Bay.

Of the 480 million gallons of wastewater in the reservoir when the leak began, 258 million remain, officials said Wednesday.

The Piney Point phosphate plant, established in the 1960s mine phosphate for fertilizer, has been a costly environmental mess for Florida taxpayers. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has been trying to clean up and close the site since 2001, after the site’s then-owner, The Mulberry Corporation, filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the plant.

Between 2004 and 2011, state lawmakers allocated at least $124 million to its cleanup, but Valenstein told lawmakers Wednesday that the state has never been fully committed to closing it.

In 2006, HRK Holdings LLC purchased the property with an agreement with the state to close it, but Valenstein told lawmakers that the company declared bankruptcy before it could happen. In 2011, the company was using the site to store dredge materials pumped from its construction of a new Port Manatee berth. The next year, it declared bankruptcy.

Lawmakers from both parties said Wednesday they were determined to pursue penalties against HRK Holdings. The company said this week that the lining of the pond existed before the company took over.

“It’s a different company that walked away from this property, and we’re left holding the bag,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.

Valenstein said his department’s lawyers were looking to hold the company accountable. He said the state should close Piney Point for good by processing all water on the site, removing it and covering the site.

Simpson said he wanted to spend enough money to do that.

“I think this is something that is long overdue,” Simpson said. “We do not need our citizens every 3, 5, 10 years to be faced with this kind of disaster.”

Times/Herald editor Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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