Environmental groups to sue Florida DEP, HRK, others over Piney Point breach

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South side of the Piney Point gypstack. Courtesy/Center for Biological Diversity.

A group of environmental and conservation organizations Tuesday announced their intent to sue the Florida Department of Environmental protection and others after the State allowed more than 200 million gallons of contaminated water to be pumped into Tampa Bay from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant.

The suit’s authors say Piney Point was an emergency, but it was no accident.

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Shortly after the Piney Point breach, the DEP’s Noah Valenstein came out hard against the site’s current owner, HRK Holdings. He said lawyers were working just as hard as the cleanup crew on the ground.

“We also have a team of attorneys back at Tallahassee that are making sure they take advantage of all the information we’re collecting,” he said. “To then put together a case to hold HRK fully accountable.”

That’s still the DEP’s position. In an emailed statement to WMNF, a DEP spokesperson said the department is “committed to holding HRK Holdings and all involved parties accountable for this event.” Adding a reminder that the “site is privately owned by HRK Holdings Inc., who is responsible for the site’s short and long-term care in accordance with all state regulations. “

And though HRK has owned and managed the land since 2006, Jaclyn Lopez of the Center for Biological Diversity said there’s one constant player in the mismanagement of Piney Point – the DEP.

“I can understand why they would be anxious to point the finger at HRK to deflect blame and responsibility for their role in this,” she said. “Our lawsuit is intended to point that spotlight back on the DEP’s regulatory failures.”

Pointing the spotlight

Piney Point was owned by the Mulberry Corporation from 1966 to 2001. The DEP took over until HRK bought the land in 2006. It was under DEP ownership, she said, that things really started to go south at Piney Point.

“Prior to HRK taking possession of Pine Point, DEP was the custodian for a number of years. DEP was at the helm and actually hired the contractors that installed the faulty liners. The ones that became defective, the ones that resulted in HRK suing DEP subcontractors,” Lopez said. “DEP was the one that authorized Piney Point being the disposal site for the dredge material at Bishop Harbor. DEP is the one constant in all of this.”

In late March, HRK site managers discovered a breach in a liner. The liner separates nearly half a billion gallons of contaminated wastewater and seawater from radioactive phosphogypsum stacks. The State authorized the release of contaminated water into Tampa Bay. It was the only way to avoid complete catastrophic failure and environmental disaster. More than 215 million gallons of contaminated water was released into the Bay before the site was in control.

The water contains excess nutrients that can fuel harmful algae and Red Tide blooms.

Swift praise

Governor Ron DeSantis and DEP leadership praised each other’s swift action, but Lopez said their actions were anything but swift. HRK begged Manatee County and the DEP for help months prior to the breach.

“This was something that HRK knew was going to happen and had been warning DEP about for nearly a year. And it got to a point where the DEP put itself in a position where it had to choose the lesser of two evils,” Lopez said. “This was not a heroic action. It was unfair chain of events.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is joined in the notice by Tampa Bay Waterkeeper; Suncoast Waterkeeper; ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation. The groups allege the site’s owners and regulators violated the Clean Water Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; and Endangered Species Act.  The notice gives HRK, the DEP and the Manatee County Port Authority time to respond to the suit’s claims before it’s filed in federal court.

Lopez said she hopes the suit sends a message to the DEP. It also oversees dozens of other gyp stacks across the State. Each carries tons of radioactive byproduct and wastewater produced by Florida’s fertilizer industry.

“We have about a billion, tons of phosphogypsum and about that much as well in the process wastewater,” she said. “We want to make sure that any lessons that are to be learned are applied moving forward. The lawsuit is intended not just to address Piney Point. But also to make sure that DEP is held responsible for its role in the disaster.”

Representatives for HRK did not respond to a request for comment.

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