MANATEE CO., Fla. (WFLA) – Projections that less than a foot of rain will create another crisis at Piney Point will get its day in court during an emergency hearing now scheduled for next week.
The Judicial Assistant for Judge Edward Nicholas, 12th Judicial Circuit, said he will hear arguments next Thursday on a motion to appoint a receiver that would take over the day-to-day operations of the long-defunct phosphogypsum facility.
The filings by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Piney Point lien holder Fortress 2020 Landco, LLC, claim an average rainfall through the end of September would pour more than 60 million gallons of water in the stack that breached in late March.
That’s about 8 million more than the stack can handle, according to the document.
According to a DEP news release, as of Friday 43 trucks have hauled 236,500 gallons of process water away from Piney Point in an effort to control the level. But the total was minimal by volume, representing less than one-tenth of 1% of the 264 million gallons in the southern stack.
The gaping crevice that opened up in the base of Piney Point’s southern stack provoked concerns the entire structure would rupture and prompted the state to pump 215 million gallons of wastewater into the Tampa Bay estuary.
ManaSota 88 Executive Director Glen Compton said he considers the current situation “the most critical” he has seen in Piney Point’s long-troubled history, which dates back decades.
Compton said he is concerned the next disaster there would start with a collapse of the southern stack.
“And that could lead to a domino effect that we would have three stacks collapse which would really annihilate, and that’s not too strong a term,” Compton said. “It would really annihilate all plant and animal life in its path.”
According to DEP, the three concerns a court-appointed receiver would address are day-to-day maintenance of Piney Point, the treatment and discharge of process water to lessen the danger of a catastrophic spill and the repair and closure of the stacks.
Businesses, homeowners and environmentalists are also worried about relieving the pressure on the stacks by sending more Piney Point water into the red tide-ravaged estuary.
Jacklyn Lopez, Director of the Florida Center for Biological Diversity which is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state and Piney Point’s owner, said the current drama has a long history.
“Piney Point continues to be an environmental emergency and it didn’t have to be this way,” Lopez said. FDEP now seeks a receiver to take over the day-to-day operations at Piney Point. That’s fine but doesn’t remedy the fact that FDEP has known for years this stack was in trouble and that it dropped the ball.”
Underscoring all of this is a web of Piney Point lawsuits.
Fortress 2020, the lienholder that’s owed an estimated $20 million, is suing HRK, DEP and others in a foreclosure case.
The Center for Biological Diversity is suing HRK, DEP and others for releasing wastewater into the bay.
DEP is suing HRK, seeking millions in civil penalties and new management of the stacks. And in the longest-running case by far, HRK is suing DEP-contracted engineering firm Ardaman and Associates.
Compton is all for the motion to appoint a receiver to take over managing Piney Point.d
“FDEP should definitely not take control of the site because they’ve done that before and mismanaged it,” Compton said.
But with rain in the forecast over the next week, is Thursday soon enough for the emergency hearing?
“We’ve dodged a few tropical systems so far,” Compton said. “If we get another one, quite frankly all bets are off. We’re really at a critical stage of what happens next at Piney Point. There’s no easy answer, there’s no easy solution here.”