DeSantis, Florida regulators sued for mismanaging Piney Point

ST. PETERSBURG — Conservation groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday, June 24, against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the acting secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, HRK Holdings, LLC and the Manatee County Port Authority for the release of hundreds of tons of hazardous pollutants into Tampa Bay and groundwater.

The lawsuit was announced in an email distributed by Suncoast Waterkeeper founder and Vice Chair Justin Bloom.

Here is a link to the lawsuit complaint: https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.190.196/7gj.0d1.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Piney-Point-Lawsuit-Complaint-6-24-21.pdf

Lawsuit press release

The following press released was issued on Wednesday:

The toxic releases endanger the public, marine ecosystems and protected species, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida.

The lawsuit comes after Florida regulators authorized the discharge of up to 480 million gallons of wastewater from the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack into Tampa Bay following years of regulatory failures and mismanagement. The Piney Point gypstack is a mountain of toxic waste, topped by an impoundment of hundreds of millions of gallons of process wastewater, stormwater and tons of dredged spoil from Port Manatee.

“The Piney Point disaster is Exhibit A in a long list of Florida’s failures to protect our water and wildlife from the harms of phosphogypsum,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Even as state officials scramble to clean up Piney Point, they have drafted a permit to authorize a 230-acre expansion of the sinkhole-prone New Wales gypstack that leaked 215 million gallons of wastewater into the Floridan aquifer.”

“Piney Point was and still is a ticking timebomb,” said Justin Bloom, Suncoast Waterkeeper founder and board member. “Rather than closing it when they had the chance, FDEP allowed the site to become even more dangerous, knowing full well the risk of collapse and catastrophic contamination.

Now Manatee County is seeking to inject the hundreds of millions of gallons of remaining hazardous wastewater into our groundwater. We’re not confident in our regulators’ ability to manage this mess and this legal action is necessary to protect our communities and waterways from further harm.”

According to the lawsuit, Piney Point is an ongoing threat to public health and the environment due to:

1. The discharge of 215 million gallons of toxic wastewater into Tampa Bay, which is now experiencing harmful algae blooms and fish kills;

2. The threat of catastrophic failure of its impoundments and/or stack system;

3. The site’s failing liners;

4. Violations of groundwater-quality standards and evidence that dangerous levels of pollution have migrated into the aquifer; and

5. The choice of an unproven and high-risk wastewater disposal method called deep-well injection to store hazardous waste at Piney Point.

“Recent events at the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant clearly demonstrate that not enough is being done to safeguard the public or the environment from the devastating impacts that the phosphate industry is having on Florida,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, Inc. “Piney Point represents the true legacy the phosphate industry will leave behind. There is no economically feasible or environmentally sound way to close an abandoned gyp stack. This legacy includes the perpetual spending of taxpayer monies and risks to the public’s health and the environment.”

Piney Point was a problematic phosphate fertilizer plant that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection turned into a disposal site for dredge material. After the owner went bankrupt and abandoned the property, the department owned and operated Piney Point from 2001 to 2004. The agency oversaw the installation of inadequate liners and approved the use of the site for dredged material storage, despite knowing the Piney Point gypstacks were at risk of failure due to foundation settling and other problems.

Florida regulators ignored the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ advice to reject the dredge proposal because of the gypstacks’ structural uncertainties, the hazardous and toxic material in the stacks, and documented past slope stability and piping issues.

“Lawsuits like this shouldn’t be necessary, especially in Florida where so much of the state’s economy and residents’ quality of life are dependent on healthy water quality,” said Annie Beaman, co-executive director of Our Children’s Earth Foundation. “State and local regulators have failed the public for decades and continue to mismanage the waste generated by the phosphate industry. We resort to federal court oversight when decisions by the political branches of government endanger the public. Enforcing basic environmental standards with citizen suits is the best option we have to ensure a healthier future for Tampa Bay, its communities and its wildlife.”

The 215 million gallons of wastewater dumped into Tampa Bay continue to spread throughout the estuary and into Sarasota Bay, transporting tons of nitrogen and other pollutants into waterways and communities. Many of those areas are already struggling to manage excessive pollution that has reduced water quality and fueled the growth of toxic algae blooms that kill seagrasses and other marine life.

Hillsborough County recently issued a public health advisory because of a red tide bloom near Piney Point; fish kills associated with red tide have been reported in recent weeks in Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties. Manatee County is suffering from an unprecedented algae bloom that is believed to be fueled in part by the nutrients dumped into the bay from Piney Point.

The fertilizer industry creates more than 30 million tons of phosphogypsum in Florida each year. Phosphogypsum is radioactive and can contain uranium, thorium and radium, which decay into carcinogenic radon. In addition to these radioactive carcinogens, phosphogypsum and process water can contain heavy toxic metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc. This waste is stored in mountainous piles called gypstacks that are hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall. Florida has 1 billion tons of radioactive phosphogypsum in 25 stacks, including the Piney Point gypstack and the New Wales gypstack.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has drafted a permit approving a 230-acre expansion of the New Wales gypstack. The stacks are perched precariously atop the Floridan aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 10 million people. Both active and inactive gypstacks have impoundments of process wastewater sitting atop the mountain of waste.

The groups involved in the lawsuit – the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation – are represented by the Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt, P.C.

County says Piney Point crisis is “under control”


PALMETTO – County and state officials believe they now have the Piney Point crisis under control.

During today’s 4 p.m. press conference, acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said, “This has been short-lived. We have dramatically reduced the risk in a very controlled way, so that, hopefully, all of us have time to recover both physically and emotionally. I think everybody should rest assured that this is very much under control now. The risk has been lessened to the point that people will be able to return to their homes. Well water (and) drinking water is safe. The environment is being protected as much as possible.”

Public Safety Director Jake Saur said the mandatory evacuation order for the Piney Point area has been lifted and residents and business owners and operators are now allowed to return to their homes and businesses. US 41 is open but a stretch of Buckeye Road remains closed.

According to Saur, the breached containment pond currently contains approximately 59 feet of water.

More than 20 pumps are being used to continue siphoning approximately 33-34 million gallons a day of water from the breached containment pond and into the deep water shipping channel at Port Manatee.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is taking frequent water quality samples at the Piney Point site, at Port Manatee and in the waters beyond the port. Water quality sample results can be found at https://protectingfloridatogether.gov/PineyPointUpdate.

Kevin Guthrie, deputy director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM), said a submersible will be brought in Wednesday to survey and hopefully repair the tear or tears in the liner of the breached retention pond.

Earlier today, during the Manatee County Commission meeting, Acting County Administrator Scott Hopes said there has been no second breach of the containment pond. He said the thermal imaging previously detected by aerial drones, and thought to be another potential breach in the containment wall, proved to be plant material rather than water seeping through a tear and into the surrounding containment wall.

Hopes said approximately 300 million gallons of water remained in the breached containment pond as of this morning.

During today’s meeting, county commissioners unanimously approved using the deep well injection method to remove any remaining water from the breached pond, and also from the more polluted water contained in two additional Piney Point containment ponds that have not been breached.

According to County Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh, the water will be treated to the county’s standards before it is injected deep into the ground using a deep injection well to be located on a nearby county-owned property.

FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said the permitting, engineering and design work for a deep injection well typically takes two to three years before the actual injection process begins. State and possibly federal funds are expected to be provided to cover or help cover the significant cost of the deep well injection process.

In closing Hopes said he did not anticipate the county holding any additional press conferences on the Piney Point situation.

FDEP and FDEM officials and staff area expected to remain at the Piney Point property for the foreseeable future.

Buchanan tours Piney Point

PALMETTO – On Monday, Congressman Vern Buchanan toured the Piney Point reservoir area by helicopter before participating in an early afternoon press conference.

At Buchanan’s request, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers are now involved in the Piney Point response and containment efforts.

Buchanan said the EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) are now jointly in command of the situation. The Florida Department of Emergency Management and Manatee County also remain involved in the response efforts.

Before Buchanan spoke, Public Safety Director Jake Saur said state and county drone teams are flying over the site every hour on the hour and providing decision-makers with real time aerial views of the site. Saur said the drones can detect temperature changes within the berms, which indicates penetration by the contained water.

Saur also 100,000 bottles of drinking water are now available at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto for those who need it.

According to Saur, 305 households remained under an evacuation order and the Red Cross and the county are assisting displaced residents. Saur said approximately 30 people, and their pets, had taken shelter at local hotels.

On Monday, it was announced that 345 inmates at the Manatee County jail were being relocated to an undisclosed location, with approximately 720 inmates to remain at the jail after being relocated to an upper level of the facility. 

Buchanan shared his concerns about the water being discharged into Tampa Bay.

“It’s very concerning to me. I know they’re making some progress, but to see the water spewing out, it looked pretty contaminated to me,” he said, noting the Piney Point crisis impacts the entire Tampa Bay region. 

“I am concerned about the threats to public safety, homes as well as businesses, and of course marine life. I’m very concerned about the impact on that. We know what that does to our communities. I really hate to see what’s happened in terms of the algae bloom and red tide, not just here, but across the state. When I see water flowing into Tampa Bay, frankly, it makes me sick,” Buchanan said.

“I want to be hopeful and optimistic, but just the fact that we’re running water into Tampa Bay is not a great thing, but the reality of is it seems like the right thing to do right now,” he added.

“I’m not an expert, but you can see in and around where the water’s spewing in there. Around the port – I hate to say it – if you go a couple miles in each direction to me it looks like algae bloom or something, but that’s something for the scientists to determine,” Buchanan said. “I’ve been following red tide for 20 years and that could have a big impact on all of Florida.”

Regarding the unaddressed Piney Point environmental concerns that lingered for the past 20 years or so, Buchanan said, “This is something that’s being going on for too long and we’re going to come together collectively between the county, the state and the federal government to make sure we get this resolved quickly. We’re going to make sure we’ve got the resources to fix this permanently – not a patch. The company, HRK, needs to be held completely responsible.”

County Commissioner Reggie Bellamy also chairs the Port Authority. He said the Port remains fully operational and anyone conducting port business still has access.

After thanking Buchanan for bringing the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in to assist, acting County Administrator Scott Hopes addressed the retention area and the breaches in its outer berms.

Hopes estimated there were just shy of the 300 million gallons in the breached reservoir at that time. He said public officials will have a much clearer idea of that status of the breached reservoir now that the Army Corps of Engineers are on the scene.

“Up to this point, we have been relying, and DEP has been relying, on HRK’s third party engineering team. Now we have the Army Corps of Engineers in here with their engineers and we will have an additional independent evaluation,” he said.

“If we go from (pumping out) 35 million gallons a day to 100 million gallons per day, within 48 hours we will be at a situation where we will no longer have that risk of that full breach, which would send that 20-foot wall of water across,” Hopes said.

“The only pool that’s at risk is that southernmost pool where we have identified breaches where we do have some uncontrolled release of water. Regarding the breaches on the eastern wall, the most visible is at the southeast corner where you see the water coming out of the side and then flowing to the north,” he explained.

“There is an area at the top of the berm, around the middle of the eastern wall, that they recognized an extrusion of that wall pushing out about 10 feet. Thermal imaging last night from the DEP drones identified a number of sites with one concentrated site in the norther portion of eastern wall where the temperatures indicate there is water intrusion into the wall at that point,” Hopes said.