MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Before the Piney Point stack rupture nearly three years ago, there was a lot of finger pointing, but very little progress toward closing it.
$75 million later, one out of four stacks is capped and the court-appointed receiver assigned to close Piney Point is hopeful the process is on schedule moving forward.
The end of next March will mark three years since stack water spewed into the environment through a breach in what is known as “new gyp stack south.”
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) then decided to release 215 million gallons into the bay to relieve pressure on the structure.
Herb Donica was appointed by the court two years ago to close Piney Point with as little environmental impact as possible. He took 8 On Your Side to the top of the four stacks that rise above Manatee County.
Old gyp stack south is now filled with layers of liner material and sand, topped off with grass and equipped with a drainage system that routes storm water one direction and potentially contaminated water into a retention pond.
With one stack now considered safely capped, the focus is draining and dredging the one that breached.
“I think everybody’s taking a deep breath,” Donica said. “Now that we’ve got the deep injection well working, we’ve lowered the water in the other ponds. So, there’s no danger of a side wall outburst.”
According to DEP, the cost of closure as of August was just over $75 million. The state legislature has allocated $185 million for Piney Point’s closure since the breach. That leaves about $110 million in the bank.
The state is trying to squeeze money out of Piney Point’s bankrupt owner through a lawsuit. DEP spokesman Brian Miller said in an email the agency is pursuing “all avenues to ensure HRK is held accountable.”
“DEP is seeking the maximum allowable penalties under existing laws and regulations, and recovery of costs,” Miller said.
Accountability for the Piney Point mess has been debated for years. The state blames HRK, but others blame the state.
As reported by 8 On Your Side, HRK personnel sent a letter to DEP warning officials about the potential for a breach about a year before it actually happened.
Also, a 2008 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on the Manatee Harbor dredging project expressed a “heightened level of concern” about pumping dredge material into the stacks.
“The worst-case scenario for Piney Point being used as dredged material disposal facility would be a breach in the liner,” the report stated.
The Corps was prophetic. The stack that ruptured in 2021, first sprung a leak in 2011 after HRK started filling it with Manatee Harbor dredge material. That 2011 episode was blamed for sending HRK into bankruptcy.
The alleged mismanagement of Piney Point’s waste by the state also remains in litigation in a federal lawsuit filed in 2021 by environmental groups Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Our Children’s Earth Foundation, and Manasota-88.
The water in the stack that failed is now low enough to see the area where the hole opened up. The next step is dredging that it and all four stacks are expected to be capped by 2025.
“We’ve had setbacks and delays. There’s still supply change delays on the pretreatment plant for the injection well,” Donica said. “Closing in on those dates. I think we’ll make it.”
Once the closure is complete, the site will be monitored for 50 years, although positive tests of water samples several years down the road could shorten that timeframe.