MANATEE, Fla. — Piney Point is no stranger in court, but a detailed lawsuit filed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection could be the beginning of the end for the troubled industrial site.

a body of water with a city in the background: Aerial drone image from Piney Point on April 14, 2021, in Palmetto, Florida. © Luis Santana/TNS Aerial drone image from Piney Point on April 14, 2021, in Palmetto, Florida.

The state agency said it took a “pivotal step” when it launched the lawsuit against property owner HRK Holdings, LLC on Thursday. If a judge agrees with FDEP’s argument, major changes could be coming to the former phosphate processing plant that caused an environmental crisis earlier this year.

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Florida’s legal action marks a significant escalation in the state’s battle against HRK. Gov. Ron DeSantis and agency leaders previously pledged to hold the company financially responsible for the leak that led to 215 million gallons of contaminated water being released into Tampa Bay.

“We look forward to making our case in court,” former FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said during a press conference in April. “We are preparing as rigorous a legal team as you see on the ground with scientists and engineers to absolutely make certain that we are moving forward and putting every effort to hold folks accountable, regardless or not of particular corporations and circumstances.”

In an interview, County Administrator Scott Hopes highlighted the importance of the state’s legal action.

“These are legal procedures that need to move forward in order to put the HRK property in a posture where FDEP and (Manatee County) can begin the closure process,” Hopes explained.

The state’s lawsuit, which was filed in Manatee County Circuit Court, asks a judge to appoint a third-party receiver to take control of the Piney Point site to oversee day-to-day operations while working toward shutting down the site for good.

Meanwhile, owner HRK is still responsible for maintaining the site. In recent weeks, the state’s environmental agency has pressured the company to put together a water management plan that will prevent another crisis.

FDEP and HRK have developed a complicated relationship over the years. The site owner was heralded as a savior when the company offered to take the Piney Point property off of the agency’s hands.

Florida leaders were stuck with the property in 2001 after Piney Point’s former owners went bankrupt and left the entire operation behind. As a former phosphate processing plant, there was still a huge mess to clean up.

The plant took in truckloads of phosphate rock and put it through several machines to extract phosphorus, a key ingredient in fertilizer products. Gypsum, a slightly radioactive material, is a byproduct of that process.

Because it is slightly radioactive, the Environmental Protection Agency does not allow gypsum to be used for any purpose. Once it’s extracted from the phosphate, it gets piled up in huge mounds called gypsum stacks. At Piney Point, those stacks stand 80 feet tall.

On top of those gypsum stacks are enormous ponds of water that are also left over from the factory’s operation. Process water is used to help operate the machinery, but it absorbs nutrients and chemicals that need to be removed before it is released into local waterways.

The largest pond on the Piney Point site sprung a leak in March, triggering an emergency. That pond held 480 million gallons of contaminated water, and engineers feared that the leak could destabilize the stack and send the water rushing into the surrounding community.

FDEP approved the emergency release of 215 million gallons of water from that pond to prevent a major flood, but the agency vowed to hold HRK accountable for letting the situation reach a breaking point. This past week’s legal action further muddled a partnership that goes back 15 years.

In 2006, HRK entered the scene and bought the Piney Point property from FDEP, relieving state agency leaders of the burden of closing the site themselves. The company, owned and operated by a New York-based hedge fund investor, hoped to turn a profit by managing the gypsum stacks while leasing out other pieces of the land to industrial users, such as warehouses and factories.

At the time, state officials agreed to task HRK with the long-term maintenance and eventual closure of the gypsum stacks. According to the new lawsuit, HRK did not hold up its side of the bargain.

“HRK is incapable of operating the Facility in compliance with Florida’s environmental laws and the standards, permits, orders, agreements related to the management of the Property and Facility,” FDEP’s lawsuit says. “If HRK is allowed to continue operating the Facility and Property, irreparable harm is likely to occur.”

But Florida officials aren’t blameless, according to HRK and local environmental protection groups. In April, HRK released its only public statement on the environmental disaster, accusing the state of ignoring calls for assistance.

“Unfortunately, while continuing to delay the approval, funding and implementation of any meaningful resolution to address these ongoing risks and problems, the authorities chose to turn away from all requests for help,” Tom Richards, an HRK spokesman, said at the time.

Justin Bloom, founder of the Suncoast Waterkeeper conservation group, agrees with HRK’s assessment. He urged the state environmental agency to consider the role it played in Piney Point’s history.

“Generally, we’ve been waiting for DEP to enforce any rules against polluters and we’ve been disappointed with their failure to act,” Bloom said. “With this lawsuit, DEP is doing some environment enforcement, but I think they need to be introspective and look at their own culpability about what happened at Piney Point.”

In June, Suncoast Waterkeeper teamed up with other environmental protection groups to launch a federal lawsuit against HRK and FDEP for allowing the release of the contaminated water into Tampa Bay.

Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, is also involved in that lawsuit. She also urged state officials to think back on how their inaction may have led to Piney Point’s failure.

“We don’t think HRK is competent but we don’t think DEP is either. DEP was responsible for the property for a significant period of time,” said Lopez, who also pointed to HRK’s correspondence as evidence of the agency’s guilt.

“There are communications between HRK and DEP where they’re saying “Help! We can’t get rid of the water quickly enough and we’re going to reach capacity!” They needed help and they needed help right away,” she added. “This should not be news to DEP. They had all this information. Why they did nothing, I have no idea. I can’t even speculate.”

The Bradenton Herald previously reported on a series of liner tears that HRK reported to DEP in 2020. The tears were evidence of a failing liner that eventually caused the leak in March.

HRK first raised an alarm to the Manatee Board of County Commissioners in September. Site manager Jeff Barath gave a presentation at the time, highlighting the limited capacity left in the gypsum stacks. Because of heavy rainfall, the site was filling up quicker than HRK could manage.

Piney Point’s massive ponds accumulate rainwater rapidly. Every inch of rain that falls into the largest pond adds another 3.7 million gallons. Barath’s presentation prompted commissioners to support spending county money toward a solution, but they couldn’t take action fast enough to prevent a crisis.

With the filing of Thursday’s lawsuit by the state, Hopes said he expects Piney Point’s cleanup activities to ramp up significantly. Manatee already has plans to build an underground injection control well to store the site’s contaminated water after it gets treated.

“We will continue to have a significant role in what the closure of Piney Point looks like. So far, everything has gone as planned,” Hopes said. “I’m very hopeful and we’ll see work getting done soon.”

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