MANATEE CO., Fla. (WFLA) – After decades of failures at Piney Point, the environmental nightmare seems to finally be coming to an end, and one of the constants at the facility might be more excited than anyone.
For years, the state took a band aid approach with the shuttered phosphate facility and there was no end in sight. A near catastrophe changed that.
The end of March will mark two years since toxic water spewed into the environment through a breach and prompted the Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] to release 215 million gallons into the bay.
Only days after the gaping hole blew through the side of Piney Point’s southern stack Jeff Barath fought back tears while detailing the breach for the Manatee County Commission.
“This is my community too,” Barath said. “And we are doing everything possible to prevent a true catastrophe. The failure of that stack system.”
The “wall of water” fear was averted but a blame game followed.
State leaders said they would hold bankrupt owner HRK Holdings accountable for the disaster, but 8 on Your Side exposed letter sent about a year before the breach from an engineering firm to the DEP.
The document warned the state about the “deterioration of the liner” above the water and its “compromised condition” under water.
The Army Corps of Engineers had also warned the state the stacks were not engineered to hold Port Manatee dredge material before that process started and caused a 2011 stack failure.
After the report was published, Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked about the government accepting accountability.
“Obviously, it was operated by a private company,” DeSantis said. “But our view is, we’re going to fix it.”
Now, nearly $60 million later, court appointed receiver Herb Donica is in charge of closing the facility.
He hired Barath to continue as Piney Point’s manager.
He spoke publicly for the first time about the current plan. Barath said before the breach there was plenty of tension between his former boss and the state.
“Yes,” Barath said. “That has been eliminated. It was having a front row seat to something you saw happening and felt inevitably it would, but your leadership would not listen.”
Barath said unlike before, there is clear plan to closure and a bridge between the process and safety.
“With that bridge it’s created a safety culture where the primary focus right now is all about protecting the community and the surrounding environment,” Barath said.
Environmentalists and residents remain concerned about the long-term impact of injecting stack water into the ground through a 3300 foot well, even if it is under the aquifer.
Barath said he believes the deep well, scheduled to be completed in January, is the best option.
“It is the best thing for the community and what moves the ball forward in closing the site down permanently,” Barath said. “Where we are now is completely different. I’m on the phone with my leadership multiple times per day and decisions are made not by as much a budgetary decision but what is right.”
But even after the draining and capping of the stacks is completed around 2025, Piney Point will still be a cost to taxpayers. The facility will have to be monitored for 50 years after it’s closed.