MANATEE CO. Fla. (WFLA) – The Manatee County Board of Commissioners approved another step in the process of closing Piney Point but there was still a debate about liability and financial concerns before the unanimous vote.

The resolution outlines the design-build and service agreement for a new facility that will treat millions of gallons of gypsum stack water before it’s injected into the 3,500-foot deep well that is under construction on county land near the long-defunct fertilizer plant.

The southern stack ruptured in late March 2021, prompting the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to decide to pump about 215 million gallons of untreated water into Tampa Bay to avoid a potential collapse of the structure. Some blamed the release for last summer’s red tide.

This phase of the closure will initially cost the county $17.9 million but the state is expected to reimburse the money.

Before the vote, County Administrator Scott Hopes said the resolution was the result of months of work and debate with the entities involved in the project.

“I believe this is the best strategy,” Hopes said.

Commissioner George Kruse expressed concerns about a “snowball” effect that he said could impact the county’s costs.

“There’s no cap to this. This $17 million could be $30 million,” Kruse said. “This 17 could be 60.”

Other commissioners agreed with Kruse’s take and Hopes projected the final cost of the so-called “final chapter” would reach $200 million – doubling last year’s initial estimate of $100 million. But Hopes also expressed confidence the county will be reimbursed.

County Attorney William Clague acknowledged since the county will own the well, there is local liability if something goes wrong. Clague told the commission the resolution was written in a way that made the risks “manageable’ for the county in the years ahead.

And there will be decades of years ahead. The EPA requires these types of deep wells to be monitored for 50 years after the pumping starts. Hopes said the service agreement that is part of the approved resolution covers years 11 through 50 – a period that is expected to start after Piney Point is drained of its stack water.

Piney Point finger pointing, a decades-long pastime in Manatee County and Tallahassee, heated up after the 2021 rupture.

As the DEP and Gov. Ron DeSantis blasted and blamed bankrupt owner HRK Holdings, 8 On Your Side obtained a letter to the state from the company’s engineering firm that warned of “the potential high risk” of a breach about a year before it actually happened. According to the letter, there was a “deterioration of the liner” above the southern stack water line, a “compromised condition” of the liner below the water line and “voids” in the dikes that hold the water.

It was not the first time DEP was warned.

Around the same time, 8 On Your Side also obtained a 2008 Army Corps of Engineers report on the Port Manatee dredging project that expressed a “heightened level of concern” about pumping the water and silt into Piney Point.

“The worst-case scenario for Piney Point being used as a dredged material disposal facility would be a breach in the liner,” the report stated.

A short time after the facility started accepting the material in 2011, the southern stack ruptured. HRK filed for bankruptcy after that breach.

At Tuesday morning’s meeting, several commissioners reflected on past efforts to close the facility, but none of those plans got this far.

Hopes said the well and treatment facility could be up and running by next spring which would mean monitoring would continue until about 2073. The county will hire a company for that, again expecting reimbursement from the state.

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