Tampa Bay senator calls on Attorney General to hold Piney Point owner liable for water-pollution disaster

By: - April 12, 2021 4:56 pm

Leaking wastewater ponds are visible atop phosphogypsum stacks at Piney Point. Polluted water from the ponds is discharging into nearby waters and may reach Tampa Bay. Source: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Following a nerve-racking weekend of rainy weather, Tampa Bay-area Sen. Janet Cruz called on Attorney General Ashley Moody Monday to take legal action against the owner of the leaky Piney Point Plant reservoirs threatening to spill millions of gallons of polluted water in waterways and communities.

In an update Sunday, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported that 0.6 inches of local rainfall over the weekend added 4 million gallons to the volume within the southern reservoir, now holding 221 million gallons of tainted water. Another 215 million gallons were discharged to Port Manatee to reduce pressure on a failing embankment.

The deliberate emergency release has ceased.

Cruz urged Moody by letter to take action against the bankrupt owner, HRK Holdings, to keep the expensive cleanup tab —and the cost of trying to restore local waterways — from falling on Florida taxpayers.

“It is clear that decades of mismanagement have led us to the unfortunate juncture we find ourselves at today, from both private and public entities. The level of disregard for these dire circumstances displayed by HRK Holdings (now conveniently bankrupt) only exacerbated this problem, and now the State of Florida and the taxpayers have to step in and foot the bill,” Cruz said.

She predicted the rough estimate of $200 million to halt the threat permanently will turn out to be low, and the cost of fouling Tampa Bay to be incalculable.

“The impact of the emergency release of the polluted water from these reservoirs will have damning ramifications for our environment and eco-tourism. The excess levels of nitrogen can lead to algal blooms, threatening precious seagrasses, our already ailing manatee populations, and culminate in extensive fish kills,” Cruz wrote. “As a Tampa Native, my concern is for our bay, the nearby aquatic preserves, the wildlife that calls this ecosystem home, and those individuals that rely on a healthy bay for their own business.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a temporary state of emergency while surrounding areas were at high risk of being flooded with polluted water from a phosphogypsum stack left behind by a fertilizer plant. The imminent risk level has fallen steadily as the volume withing the reservoirs has fallen.

But the damage to waterways and marine life by the polluted discharge remains to be assessed.

Piney Point is blamed for repeated incidents of dumping and leaking polluted water, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times in 2003 and recapped by Phoenix columnist Craig Pittman, formerly with the Times, on April 6.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]

MORE FROM AUTHOR