‘Constant danger’: Piney Point facility receiver discusses deep well, timeline and cost of closure

8 On Your Side

Courtesy: Center for Biological Diversity

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — About 1.7 million gallons of water has been trucked from Piney Point over the past three weeks, but the volume in the south stack that breached has increased by about 5 million gallons during that time.

Managing the levels in all the stacks of the defunct fertilizer plant is a major concern for Herb Donica, who was appointed two weeks ago as the facility receiver by a Manatee County judge.

“It’s impossible to keep up with the rain,” Donica said.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection, the south stack had 271 million gallons in it as of Thursday. Donica said there’s an estimated 500 million gallons in all the stacks at the plant but the one that burst open in late March is the focus.

“It’s a constant danger,” Donica said. “Since the liner let go, that means the liner could go anywhere in the stack.”

The April breach prompted the decision by DEP to release 215 million gallons of stack water into the bay, fueling red tide, according to many critics.

Donica’s history with Piney Point dates back 20 years. The Tampa attorney worked on the bankruptcy case involving former owner, Mulberry Corporation. Closing out the file for five Mulberry subsidiaries lasted about 15 years and included the Piney Point sale to current owner HRK ​Holdings, LLC.

Current lienholder Fortress 2020 and DEP had filed the motions requesting a receiver and Donica’s name came up as someone who knew the tortured ins and outs of Piney Point.

Fortress 2020 also named DEP in its bankruptcy filing against HRK but in the motion for a receiver they are on the same side and the parties agreed on Donica.

“I was familiar with DEP and some of folks who were there back then, are still there,” Donica said. “They felt with my background I could help get the ball over the finish line.”

Donica said his good friends thought he was crazy to take the job, but closing the toxic eyesore was something he had thought about ever since the bankruptcy case.

“I don’t answer to the DEP. I only answer to the court.” Donica said, “Right now, it’s just me and the stacks. It’s kind of a lonely job.”

Donica said the short-term issue is managing the water level and ensuring safety plans are in place in case of another emergency. 

The proposed long-term solution is a 3,500-foot deep well that is currently in the DEP permitting process.

Donica admits he opposed the well in the past, but said he changed his mind after examining the permit and other research.

He said he knows there are critics among local and national environmental groups.

“I always ask them what’s the alternative?” Donica said. “Of course​ it’s a bad plan, [but] what’s your plan?”

If it’s approved, the estimated time to drill the well is about a year but Donica hopes that can be expedited. Once the stacks are dewatered at a rate of up to 2 million gallons a day, they will be demolished.

Donica is in the process of putting together a budget.

“I don’t have a number yet. I don’t have an open checkbook,” Donica said. “If we don’t spend the money now, it’s going to be a lot more later​, after the damage is done.”

Donica hopes by the fall of 2026, Piney Point will be nothing but a bad memory.

“People aren’t going to be happy when they hear our time frame, but it’s got to be done right,” Donica explained. “The only thing that’s certain in my mind is we are going to have another sidewall breach if we just say we’re not going to do anything.”

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