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:

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.

Baugh-Jensen vaccine texts suggest political motivations?

The text messages exchanged between Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh and ‎Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. President and CEO Rex Jensen regarding the pop-up vaccine distribution site they helped Gov. Ron DeSantis establish at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch in mid-February suggest there may have been political motivations involved in those efforts.

One text exchange between Baugh and Jensen alludes to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ possible 2022 reelection bid and how the Lakewood Ranch vaccine clinic might benefit the governor politically. That specific exchange can be found on page 26 of the PDF document below that contains 35 pages of Baugh’s text message records, which also include exchanges with Commissioner Carol Whitmore, Public Safety Director Jake Saur, Information Outreach Manager Nick Azzara and others.

Baugh named in vaccine-related ethics complaint

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh has been named in an ethics complaint.
Photo” Joe Hendricks

BRADENTON – On Tuesday, county resident Jennifer Hamey filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics regarding Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh’s recent role in organizing a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination distribution site in Lakewood Ranch.

Hamey, a local attorney, filed the ethics complaint one day after Sarasota paralegal Michael Barfield filed a sworn criminal complaint with State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s office and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office regarding Baugh’s recent vaccine-related actions.

When contacted via email Tuesday afternoon Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Randy Warren confirmed Barfield’s complaint and said, “It’s an active investigation. Michael Barfield filed a complaint yesterday and our detectives are looking into it now.”

Hamey’s ethics complaint and Barfield’s complaints are separate and independent actions that pertain to the same issues.

Ethics complaint

Taking place the week of Feb. 16 at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, vaccine eligibility for the pop-up clinic Baugh helped organize was limited to 3,000 recipients in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes only. As part of her efforts, Baugh also submitted to Manatee County Public Safety Director Jacob Saur a list containing the names of five specific individuals, including herself, to be vaccinated.

Baugh helped organize the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site in conjunction with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen.

Regarding the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site, Manatee County issued a press release on Feb. 15 in which Baugh was quoted Baugh as saying, “This unique opportunity was made possible by Governor DeSantis calling (Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. president) Rex Jensen wanting to do a vaccination site near Lakewood Ranch. The governor has been trying to find large areas of neighborhoods to target.’” 

According to Baugh’s short list, which contained each person’s zip code, address, phone number and birth date, two of the five people on that list – Rex Jensen and his father Lawrence Jensen – do not live in the 34202 or 34211 zip codes. Baugh’s short list also included Lakewood Ranch residents Robert and Marie Keehn, who like Baugh, do live in the 34202 zip code.

The Lakewood Ranch pop-up vaccine distribution site’s zip code restrictions were not in accordance with the randomized, lottery-based vaccine registration and standby pool protocols previously established by the Manatee County Commission.  

As a result of the public fallout that ensued, Baugh later apologized to some degree for her actions and she said she chose not to receive the vaccine herself.

Issues for consideration

Hamey’s ethics complaint lists two issues for consideration by the Commission on Ethics.

“Did respondent (Baugh) violate Florida Statute 112.313(6), Misuse of Public Position, by ignoring the county’s lottery system for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and instead unilaterally picking two zip codes in her district to receive 3,000 additional vaccines issued by the state, to the detriment of all other Manatee County residents 65 and over who had signed up for the lottery system?”

“Did respondent violate Florida Statute 112.313(6), Misuse of Public Position, by putting herself and four friends onto a ‘VIP’ list provided to the county to insure she received a vaccine from the extra doses provided by the state?”

Hamey’s complaint notes that in February Baugh was approached by DeSantis with an offer to provide 3,000 additional vaccines for a pop-up vaccination site at the Premier Sports Campus.

To date, the county administered vaccinations have generally occurred at Tom Bennett Park in east Manatee County and also at the county’s public safety center.

Hamey’s complaint notes the Premier Sports Campus is owned and operated as a Manatee County park.

“Respondent (Baugh), by her own admission as stated by her at a county work session on Feb. 18, took full responsibility for choosing the two zip code locations and advised she was not directed by the governor to do so. Both of these zip codes are located in her district, are predominantly white and have an average median income of over $100,000,” the complaint states. It also notes Baugh lives in the 34202 zip code and owns a business there as well.

The ethics complaint states, “Respondent (Baugh) further admits in her responses to correspondence from an angry resident that she ‘did have a lack of judgement.’”

Hamey’s complaint cites language contained in Florida Statute 112.313(6) that states, “No public officer shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for himself, herself or others.”

The complaint also states, “The first instance of violating 112.313(6) occurred when respondent (Baugh) took it upon herself to determine what two zip codes were worthy to receive an additional 3,000 vaccines and chose two areas that were advantageous to her personally and to the detriment of the other 150,000 persons over the age of 65 who had done as directed and entered into a lottery system.

“Respondent used her position to advise the governor of her choices. She did so with no discussion with the other six commissioners, and she did so without any consideration to the very lottery system she (and the other commissioners) put into place for the residents of Manatee County to maintain fairness in the process,” according to the complaint.

“The second instance of violating 112.313(6) occurred just days after already excluding over 140,000 residents from a chance at the 3,000 vaccines – only 7,285 of the approximately 150,000 signed up residents lived in 3402 or 34211. Respondent created a ‘VIP’ list to ensure that she and several friends and neighbors got vaccines out of those 3,000 that were provided by the state. Two of the parties that she listed on her ‘VIP’ list didn’t even live within the two zip codes that she chose as the ones to get the vaccine,” Hamey stated in her complaint.

“These actions taken by the respondent, separately and over the course of approximately a week, are a clear violation of the requirements outlined in 112.313(6),” the complaint states.

The ethics complaint is accompanied by several evidentiary exhibits, including the Monday, Feb. 15 email Baugh sent Saur that contained her list of five specified vaccine recipients.

The exhibits also include the Tuesday, Feb. 9, email Baugh sent Saur that said, “Jake, the state wants Rex to keep a list. Can we do that.”

In response, Saur wrote, “The state hasn’t mentioned anything to us on this end yet on what they require. We would be able to pull from our vaccine waiting pool for scheduling for them.”

Baugh remains commission chair

On Tuesday, the Manatee County Commission voted 4-3 in opposition to Commissioner Reggie Bellamy’s motion to remove Baugh as the commission chairperson. Bellamy’s motion did not seek to remove Baugh as county commissioner, nor does the commission have that authority.

Before making his motion, Bellamy asked Baugh if she would resign as commission chair. Baugh said she would not.

Commissioner Reggie Bellamy proposed removing Vanessa Baugh as commission chair.
Photo: Joe Hendricks

Baugh was joined by commissioners George Kruse, James Satcher and Kevin Van Ostenbridge in opposing her removal as chair. Commissioners Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore joined Bellamy in support of his failed motion.