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Environmentalists, state of Florida settle Piney Point lawsuit


A protective liner has been installed on top of the south Phosphogypsum stacks at Piney Point. It includes a new stormwater control system, and soil cover and grass to reduce the chance of soil erosion.
A protective liner has been installed on top of the south Phosphogypsum stacks at Piney Point. It includes a new stormwater control system, and soil cover and grass to reduce the chance of soil erosion.
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Five environmental groups and the state of Florida have settled a lawsuit over the handling of the 2021 leak at the phosphogypsum treatment plant at Piney Point, which sent millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.

In the settlement, The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to a draft Clean Water Act permit that will require more oversight of pollution of the bay and surrounding groundwater.

FDEP will also pay $75,000 to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to pay for monitoring ambient water quality in and around Piney Point, in northern Manatee County.

“There are some really good things to come out of this settlement,” Abbey Tyrna, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper, said. “We were able to push to create some pollution limits" for the treatment plant, which she described as “one of the most polluted industries in Florida.”

The Center for Biological Diversity issued a statement praising the terms of the settlement. 

“A strong, enforceable Clean Water Act permit for Tampa Bay’s most problematic polluter is long overdue,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney at the center. 

“It shouldn’t have taken a disastrous pollution event and legal action to prompt our state regulators to do their job, but we’re hopeful this permit is a step toward eliminating the looming threat this site has posed for decades,” he said in the news release.

The damage done wasn't limited to Tampa Bay, according to Dr. David Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. 

Shortly after the spill, Sarasota Bay experienced a severe lyngbya bloom, "the worst I've ever seen," he said. 

Lyngbya depletes dissolved oxygen in the water which leads to fish kills and a loss of habitat for fish, shellfish and crabs. It can also cause respiratory issues in humans.

"Effects were also seen as far north as Tarpon Springs," Tomasko said, adding there are at least 20 other phosphogypsum stacks in Florida. "Are we making sure this doesn't happen somewhere else?"

For 20 years, Piney Point was the site of large reservoirs that stored and treated the toxic byproducts of phosphate mining. 

In March 2021, a leak was discovered in the liner of one of the reservoirs. As the leak grew, nearby homes and businesses were evacuated and the state declared a state of emergency. 

Fearing a catastrophic breach of the berm of the reservoir, regulators ordered the discharge of 215 million gallons of wastewater from the gypstack into Tampa Bay, in order to relieve pressure on the walls of the reservoir. 

The resulting red tide outbreak and fish kills were labeled by environmental groups as a major ecological disaster.

The owners of the site, HRK Holdings LLC, soon entered into bankruptcy. The state sued HRK, seeking millions in fines and compensation. That suit is still unresolved.

The state appointed Tampa attorney Herb Donica to oversee the site’s cleanup and closure. 

On July 5, the FDEP issued an update on progress to remove contaminated material from the site. It noted more than 200 million gallons of treated wastewater have been pumped deep underground by an injection well installed on the property near Buckeye Road. 

Approximately 176 million gallons are currently held within the NGS-South compartment. A protective liner has been installed on top of the compartment, along with a new stormwater control system, and soil cover and grass over the OGS-South cap area to reduce the chance of soil erosion.

 

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Jim DeLa

Jim DeLa is the digital content producer for the Observer. He has served in a variety of roles over the past four decades, working in television, radio and newspapers in Florida, Colorado and Hawaii. He was most recently a reporter with the Community News Collaborative, producing journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties; and as a digital producer for ABC7 in Sarasota.

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