Legal expert says state’s Piney Point lawsuit based on ‘incompetent’ argument

8 On Your Side

MANATEE CO., Fla. (WFLA) – The state’s lawsuit against Piney Point‘s owners accuses the LLC of mismanagement of the defunct phosphogypsum facility and seeks millions in penalties, but a law professor gives the plaintiffs slim chances of prevailing.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) complaint against HRK Holdings demands $65,000 a day in civil penalties dating back to last year, alleging the company did not obey a 2014 consent order while managing the site.

The DEP is also asking for a receiver to be put in charge of the property which is currently in foreclosure over an estimated $22 million in debt.

Stetson Law Professor Timothy Kaye was stern in his assessment of the complaint and its underpinnings.

“The statement of claim is vague in the extreme,” Kaye said. “And the citing of the consent order as supporting the claims is either incompetent or disingenuous.”

HRK bought the property in 2006, hoping to turn a profit by piping dredge material from Port Manatee into the stack. But a liner leak in 2011 crushed that plan and provoked a bankruptcy filing from the company the following year.

Then, in April another breach prompted the state to relieve pressure in the southern stack by pumping 215 million gallons of wastewater into the bay.

The civil penalties could add up to more than $35 million if the state won the lawsuit. HRK’s best asset is the land at the facility that is said to be worth about $28 million. The company’s bank account, controlled by DEP, has less than $2 million in funds that was set aside to manage the property.

Kaye said the consent order does not provide “the relevant environmental standards expected of HRK,” making it difficult for the state to prove what the company allegedly did wrong.

“It looks like an agreement to me that was drafted in haste,” Kaye said. “It does not look like it has got very specific terms in it. It does not look like it has very clear criteria of how to judge the rights of each of the parties.”

HRK owner Michael Harley has not responded yet to a request for comment, and a DEP spokesperson said the agency does not comment about ongoing litigation.

Stuck in the middle are residents like Stephanie Wright.

“It’s scaring the heck out of us,” Wright said during a recent walk through her neighborhood.

She lives near Piney Point where the water level in the stack that breached is rising, now, up by about 70 million gallons since the rainy season started.

“People were actually talking about moving back over the bridge,” Wright said.

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