Holding everyone responsible for Tampa Bay’s Piney Point disaster | Editorial
Pollution leak was a team effort, and government shares in the blame.
Aerial drone image of Piney Point in Palmetto on April 14, 2021.
Aerial drone image of Piney Point in Palmetto on April 14, 2021. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 20, 2021

The environmental crisis at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant didn’t originate overnight, and blame doesn’t fall only on the land’s private owner, HRK Holdings. That’s why it is good that a coalition of environmental groups announced its intention to sue state and local agencies in addition to the company for the pollution that poured into Tampa Bay. This is an opportunity to hold all parties responsible and to ensure the site closes permanently.

The groups announced their intention Tuesday to file a case against HRK, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Manatee County Port Authority. Last month, the state environmental agency issued an emergency order allowing HRK to discharge about 215 million gallons of polluted water from the site into Tampa Bay. The move was designed to prevent a potential collapse of a leaking reservoir at the Palmetto property, where ponds hold a mix of polluted process water, seawater and rainwater. Scientists are tracking any impacts from the release, as environmentalists are concerned the nutrient-rich water could fuel algal blooms, harming property, water quality and marine life in Tampa Bay.

While the state’s order was aimed at preventing a catastrophic failure of the reservoir, and the threat of a resulting flood, the situation at Piney Point should have never been allowed to deteriorate. Within the last two years, state and local officials were warned that wastewater ponds were approaching capacity at Piney Point, and a plastic liner holding in water could fail, according to lawyers for the environmental groups, which include the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation.

The legal action comes in the wake of an exhaustive Tampa Bay Times report last month that found that HRK, Manatee County and the state all had a hand in what became a crisis. As early as 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was predicting possible disaster at the old plant if a plan to use the site for dredging went forward. Army Corps officials warned the Manatee County Port Authority, which was counting on the increase in dredging business. They warned the state DEP, which stood to show it could transform a costly mess into an asset. And those warnings reached HRK Holdings, which planned to make millions from storing dredge material. All of them pushed back. And then the worst happened. The liner failed almost immediately after dredging began. And now 10 years later, it happened again.

“It’s not just one entity that is responsible for the problems created at Piney Point,” said Glenn Compton, chair of the local environmental advocacy group ManaSota-88. “It’s a culmination of a lot of mismanagement that’s taken place for decades.”

A DEP spokesperson this week reiterated the agency’s commitment to hold all of those involved accountable for “this event,” and to close the site “once and for all.” But this lawsuit underscores for the record that “this event” would not have occurred without the government’s own failures in the run-up to it. It keeps Piney Point in the spotlight now that public attention has waned from the discharge last month. It also offers more guarantees that the wastewater will be removed and any environmental damage will be addressed. And a lawsuit might induce the state to hold a firmer line, and to begin a more serious examination of the risks of mining phosphate, and of what it takes to responsibly regulate the industry.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.