As the drama subsides around Manatee County’s environmental emergency at the old Piney Point phosphate mine, no doubt we can expect the political fallout to equal, if not surpass, the environmental fallout.
Out-of-power forces always love a crisis and a disaster to blame on those in power.
Thankfully, the leaking of contaminated water from a deteriorating containment wall did not create the historic human and environmental catastrophe it could have.
But you can bet there will be plenty of political activists in Manatee County — especially those still chafing over the new Republican commission majority — who will tuck this brush with Piney Point disaster in their campaign ammunition bags.
But as the political blame game begins, some context will be useful. The Jan. 26, 2021, Manatee County Commission meeting is a good one to watch the archived video. It shows how the Piney Point problem has been known for a long time, and it shows how slow government moves.
But it also shows that the Manatee County Commission as a collective body, Manatee’s legislative delegation of Sen. Jim Boyd and Reps. Will Robinson and Tommy Gregory, and Manatee Chair Vanessa Baugh committed at the beginning of the year to fixing Piney Point.
At the end of the Jan. 26 meeting, Baugh dropped a big surprise when she told commissioners she had just found out herself that the commission had only a week — not a month — to submit a request to the Legislature for $12 million to address Piney Point. The catch was this: Manatee County was to contribute $6 million, and the state would contribute $6 million.
Baugh told commissioners Robinson’s office informed the county the day before the commission meeting that it needed to rush its request to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to secure the funds in the 2021-22 legislation session.
Let’s pick up the commission meeting with Charlie Hunziker, Manatee’s director of Parks and Natural Resources, explaining that among the documentation that needed to be submitted were reports to justify the funding.
Hunziker reminded commissioners that the commission had two detailed reports presented in February 2020, including one from the FDEP that, as Hunziker said, “clearly stated that we have between one to four years to solve this problem.”
After Hunziker finished his presentation, the commissioners commented one by one.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who spars with Baugh at just about every meeting: “So under commissioners’ comments, we’re going to commit $6 million. And where is this money going to come from?”
Whitmore: “Please. I mean, are we taking the money for 44th that the state gave us last year? … Where do we have $6 million for Piney Point, [which] we don’t own? It’s in our county. There’s a major issue with it. And I agree it needs to be resolved.
“So you say the state’s going to pay the other $6 million? And, well, we’re going to do a study. What if it’s more?
“I can’t believe you’re bringing this up now and asking us to vote with no information. … That’s not fiscally responsible, I don’t think.
“So that’s just my comment. But whatever. And many of our citizens aren’t going to like what they’ve just heard.”
Commissioner James Satcher: “Obviously, we all know the situation at Piney Point is real serious and a danger to our environment and people. When it comes to what we’re going to do with the state and this year, we made that bet. We all put it at the top of the list. That was the vote.
“We sat up here [and said] we’re going to put all of our emphasis on this one.
“Obviously, we didn’t know the Feb. 2 deadline. So it’s time. We made the bet.”
Commissioner Reggie Bellamy: “What are our options? We have to make a move like this. And this is a move that we need to put our county in a better situation. The question on the table is where is this money coming from?”
Chair Vanessa Baugh: “We know it’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. It will be a major catastrophe not only for Manatee County, but for Sarasota County as well. …
“I really find it hard to comprehend that anyone on this board could question how serious this is and how we need to move forward.
“The longer we wait, the worse it is.
“Do we have all the answers? No, but you know what, we’ve got a lot of people working on them. And a lot of people are trying to make this happen, including Congressman Buchanan, whom I spoke with last Friday.
“We will have a lobbyist working on Piney Point in Tallahassee to try to get this done.
“Yes, we know, the funding — good grief, we’re not stupid — we know the funding in Tallahassee is difficult this year. But we also know this is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
“I for one will not just close my eyes and act like it doesn’t exist and take a chance of this happening, not on my watch, while I’m on this board.
“I can tell you Rep. Robinson feels the same way. He feels for his family and for the future. It’s very important to get this done. The longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost.
“So if we can afford to do some of the things in this county that we do, we certainly should be able to afford $6 million in our reserves to pay to finally get Piney Point taken care of.”
Commissioner Kevin Ostenbridge: “You’re asking me to spend $6 million. And it is a good cause, don’t get me wrong. And it is something that I want to resolve, and I want to see fixed.
“But this $6 million is more tax dollars than 99.9% of the people in this county will pay in their entire lives. And we’re supposed to today because it’s due Feb. 2 and with no details spend $6 million taxpayer dollars. …We’re going to commit to $6 million in taxpayer dollars, and we don’t even know where out of our budget this money is coming from. This is no way to spend other people’s money.”
Commissioner Misty Servia: “I would just say things move extremely quickly at the legislative level. This is not uncommon. You just got to go with the flow.
“But we can change our minds. If the rules changes, and things change, and this board says we’re uncomfortable with it, we say we’re out.
“To even have a chance at the matching money, we have to go forward. That’s the way I see it. And with that I’m making the motion to do so.”
By the discussion’s end, the commissioners voted 7-0 to apply for the $6 million matching grant from the state.
Given what occurred the past week, with Florida lawmakers and state officials responding quickly to avoid catastrophe, whatever state money is needed will likely be there.
But the moral of this story is that when the seven sitting Manatee commissioners are accused in the next election cycle of neglecting Piney Point, the facts can be found in the video of the Jan. 26 County Commission meeting.