Piney Point owner calls DEP insinuations about breach ‘preposterous’

8 On Your Side

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The owner of the embattled Piney Point gypsum stack has proposed “numerous solutions” to the state over the years and did everything “required” to maintain the site, according to the company’s first statement since the latest breach.

The response from HRK Holdings followed threats of legal action aimed at the bankrupt LLC by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) during a news conference at the site where a leak in late March led to 215 million gallons of stack water getting pumped into Tampa Bay.

“To insinuate that HRK has done anything other than what was required of and allowed by the State of Florida under authority of numerous agreements and projects undertaken by the company is preposterous,” the statement said.

As DeSantis and DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein discussed gathering information to potentially “hold HRK fully accountable,” there were also questions about how Piney Point evolved from a fertilizer plant to potential Port Manatee dredging material containment site.

“I think everyone scratches their head,” Valenstein said. “What made sense with having HRK come in and do this more than a decade ago, how did that happen?”

Potential answers are in a series of documents obtained by and reviewed by 8 On Your Side.

According to one of many court filings tied to Piney Point, the stack’s design was questioned 20 years ago by Ardaman and Associates, an engineering firm working for the state then and now.

The document indicated a 2001 report by Orlando-based Ardaman and Associates insinuated that “the greatest likelihood of catastrophic failure” was in the stack that breached last month and 10 years ago.

Even with a warning from its own engineer who records state designed the stack system, the state still sold the property to HRK in 2006, with a plan in place to pump dredging material into the stack.

Two years later, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) report warned the Piney Point stacks were not engineered to hold dredging material. The corps suggested dumping the mixture 27 miles offshore at a savings of about $300,000 a year.

“HRK was led to believe that the liner and stack system could safely receive dredge spoils from Port Manatee,” HRK’s statement said. “Notwithstanding the strong objections and concerns over such a project expressed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

Within weeks of pumping saltwater and silt into the stack in 2011, a crack in the liner caused a major breach that ended the flow of dredging material.

More recently, a March 2020 letter from HRK engineer Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions called for draining the stack months ago, due again to the deteriorating liner.

DEP Director of Communications Dee Ann Miller said Wood’s annual inspection report from June of last year stated the Piney Point stack system, “is generally in good condition.”

As the state now prepares to try to shutter Piney Point for good at an estimated cost of $200 million, HRK Holdings said proposals to drain the stack have been proposed to DEP several times over the years, “including a number of solutions just the last year.”

While that $200 million price tag looms, records provided by DEP show a long-term care account funded by Piney Point land sales holds about $2.5 million. According to a letter from DEP to Wood Engineering, DEP controls the spending from that account.

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