Piney Point fallout: Florida officials were ‘asleep at the wheel’ before breach, conservation groups say

8 On Your Side

5 conservation groups file intent to sue

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – Citing a decade of bad decisions by Florida regulators, five conservation groups plan on suing a pair of government entities and the owner of Piney Point for last month’s breach that sent an estimated 220 million gallons of wastewater into the environment.

A 72-page notice of intent to sue was sent Tuesday to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Manatee County Port Authority and HRK Holdings from the organizations that include the Center for Biological Diversity.

Jaclyn Lopez, the Florida director of that group, said change is needed in how the fertilizer industry is regulated, “or these disasters will continue.”

“The Piney Point disaster was the direct result of bad decision-making by Florida regulators,” Lopez said. “The state has failed miserably in its duty to protect Floridians from the toxic waste at Piney Point and the two-dozen other gypstacks threatening our communities.”

Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88, Our Children’s Earth Foundation, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and Lopez’s organization sent the notice alleging the defendants “violated the Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Endangered Species Act.”

The document also states Florida regulators ignored advice from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ not to put dredge material in the Manatee County stacks long before the last significant breach in 2011.

“The state of Florida needs to be held accountable as well.”

Justin Bloom – Suncoast Waterkeeper

DEP Deputy Press Secretary Alexandra Kuchta said the agency “cannot comment on pending litigation,” but she did echo past accountability claims aimed at one of the others named in the notice.

“What I can tell you is the department is committed to holding HRK Holdings Inc. and all involved parties accountable for this event,” Kuchta said. “As well as ensuring the closure of this site once and for all so that this is the final chapter of Piney Point.”

Manatee County Admnistrator Scott Hopes has yet to respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for HRK said he wanted to look into the notice before responding.

As first reported by 8 On Your Side, HRK had warned the state about the condition of the stack that failed a year before the breach and later called claims the company did not do what was required by the state, “proposterous.”

Suncoast Waterkeeper founder Justin Bloom said while the DEP and other government leaders, including Gov. Ron DeSantis have called for HRK to be held accountable, “the state of Florida needs to be held accountable as well.”

Complainants also want to raise awareness about other fertilizer industry issues and cited the 2016 stack sinkhole in Polk County.

“Instead of appropriately closing this toxic-waste site when they had the chance, the FDEP allowed the site to become even more perilous,” Bloom said. “Knowing full well the risk of collapse and catastrophic contamination.

Bloom added even as the plans continue to close Piney Point, and send an estimated 600 million gallons of wastewater into a deep well, it is still “a ticking timebomb.”

ManaSota-88 chairman Glenn Compton and the other organizations also called out the entire fertilizer industry for storing “more than 1 billion tons of the radioactive and toxic waste” in 25 stacks around the state.

“Phosphate companies have had over 70 years to figure out a way to dispose of the radioactive gypsum wastes in an acceptable manner,” Compton said. “But they have yet to do so.”

Our Children’s Earth Foundation co-executive director Annie Beaman echoed the other groups’ assertions, saying the government was “asleep at the wheel.”

“One of the tragedies of Piney Point is that it could and should have been avoided — Florida officials saw this coming and still failed to act,” Beaman said. “Once again, the Tampa Bay environment is suffering. The public and our ecosystems will bear the brunt of this toxic pollution.”

Lopez said the law requires a 90-day warning before filing the actual lawsuit which will not include a request for monetary damages.

“We’re not looking for any financial gains,” Lopez said. “We want a seat at the table as the plans continue to close Piney Point. This is our home too.”

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