A predictable, preventable Piney Point disaster

July 12, 2012 

The disclosure that HRK Holdings LLC alerted the state environmental agency about a storage liner rip at its Piney Point facility three months before another tear gushed toxic water into Bishop Harbor last summer comes as a surprise since Port Manatee was apparently not notified.

The port had a contract with HRK to store dredge material from a major berth expansion project inside Piney Point's old gypsum stacks. As such, HRK had a responsibility to inform the port of potential risks to the storage operation.

As Herald reporter Josh Salman revealed in exclusive reports last week and Wednesday, the disastrous spill of 170 million gallons of toxic water into the harbor in May 2011 was predictable and preventable.

Months before the leak, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection learned of a crane accident at the site and ordered an inspection of the entire 350-acre structure. HRK discovered a 6-inch rip in the liner in February 2011, emails between HRK and DEP indicate. The company repaired the damage only a few weeks before the start of Berth 12 dredging.

Why was the Manatee County Port Authority left out of this loop as stated by the authority's chairman, county Commissioner Larry Bustle? Like HRK, why didn't the state inform the authority of this? Both the company and the agency owe the Port Authority and the public an explanation. The February rip could have served as a warning that the entire site held the potential for disaster.

At this point, it remains unclear whether Port Manatee officials knew about the initial rip as they have declined to comment because of pending litigation.

A study commissioned by HRK after the massive leak indicated the spill should have been expected because the liner seams bonded improperly and heat-induced stress cracks had punctured the liner months before dredge material was pumped into the stacks.

Worse, though, the liner damage could have been prevented. In 2006, DEP suspected sun exposure would weaken the liner and ordered HRK to cover the sprawling site with dirt as protection from heat -- a common practice. But with the estimated $4 million cost of the dirt, the company got DEP to waive that stipulation months later once HRK agreed to accept financial liability in the event of a disaster.

The state agency figured dredge material would serve the same protective barrier as dirt. But dredging did not begin for some five years and the predictable occurred -- the structure deteriorated due to stress cracks caused by long-term exposure to heat.

HRK now refuses to explain the company's failure to protect the liner with dirt. With the company mired in bankruptcy protection proceedings as well as several lawsuits, that liability agreement appears unenforceable.

Ardaman & Associates, an engineering consulting company responsible for the design, construction and changes in the stacks used to store dredged material, issued a report in July 2009 to the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers, claiming "there was practically no chance of a liner tear or rupture," an email states.

But the investigation commissioned by HRK after the spill revealed numerous shortcomings in liner installation and design. The report puts the primary cause of the leak on stress cracks that existed before the reservoir was filled with water. How did the February 2011 site inspection not reveal this? The report clearly states these cracks along welds existed for months if not years before water was pumped into the stacks.

HRK exposed Manatee County to a flood of hazardous material. DEP failed in its mission to protect the environment. Both acted irresponsibly by not informing the Port Authority of the inordinate risks of a disaster. Port Manatee and the Port Authority bear some responsibility, too, for not engaging in tighter oversight and learning of the hazards.

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