ManaSota-88 seeks investigation of state's role in Piney Point toxic spill

jsalman@bradenton.comAugust 7, 2012 

PALMETTO -- An environmental advocacy group has requested the Florida Department of Environmental Protection open an internal investigation into the agency's handling of Piney Point.

The formal request is the first step by ManaSota-88 in challenging actions by the state, Port Manatee and the site owner, HRK Holdings LLC, that may have contributed to last year's 170-million-gallon toxic spill into Bishop Harbor.

"The DEP just didn't have a good handle on the project, and they let it get away from them," ManaSota-88 Chairman Glenn Compton said. "Ultimately, we just want them to follow their own rules when closing gypsum stacks. It's pretty clear they didn't do that."

DEP officials declined to comment until the letter could be reviewed. The department previously has stood by its oversight.

HRK CEO Jordan Levy did not respond to requests for comment.

"I don't think anybody expected that leak to happen," John Coates, bureau chief of the DEP's division of solid and hazardous waste, previously told the Bradenton Herald. "At the time, we were all confident it would work."

A letter, outlining what ManaSota-88 believes to be numerous violations to the terms of the dredging permit, was sent to the DEP's Inspector General Candie Fuller via certified mail Monday.

If the state refuses to corporate, the organization plans to follow with a lawsuit.

"The DEP held the ultimate authority," Compton said. "If their oversight was lax, that's something all Florida taxpayers should be concerned about."

Piney Point is a former phosphate facility purchased by HRK in 2006 to serve as disposal grounds for Port Manatee's Berth 12 dredging project -- the focus of a $200 million decade-long expansion to accommodate larger cargo ships.

In May 2011, liners and pipes that housed the dredged material at Piney Point sprung leaks, gushing 2,700 gallons of toxic water a minute into Tampa Bay's Bishop Harbor.

Although records have revealed Port Manatee and HRK also took shortcuts during the process, Compton said his organization ultimately holds the DEP accountable for the disaster. The DEP issued all permits associated with the plan, and provided final oversight.

ManaSota-88 previously filed several legal challenges claiming permitting violations against the DEP and Mulberry Phosphates Inc. when phosphate fertilizer was still being made at Piney Point. The property was abandoned by Mulberry in its 2001 bankruptcy.

The latest request by ManaSota-88 states the DEP's risk analysis in July 2009 identified concerns about using gypsum stacks as dredging storage reservoirs. The state approved the project anyway.

The group contends the design of the system was "woefully inadequate" and that water discharges at Piney Point still have not been treated to meet Florida's fresh water quality standards.

A series of Bradenton Herald reports show the toxic spill at Piney Point might have been avoided had the state stopped the project when a liner tear was discovered months before a similar rip ultimately became responsible for the pollution.

State officials apparently never notified port staff of any previous problems before the toxic spill.

The DEP also allowed HRK to get by without applying a commonly used protective dirt cover over the exterior of the gypsum stack, which could have prevented sun damage that's believed to have contributed to the ruptures, reports show.

During the permitting approval process, the agency reduced HRK's mortgage with the state for Piney Point from $3.8 million to $1.2 million in June 2010 after HRK agreed to take over the DEP's water management responsibility.

To date, HRK has yet to submit a water management plan -- leaving a threat of more potentially toxic runoff at Piney Point as early as next month, according to public records.

The state acknowledges it never vetted the dredging disposal contract for accuracy. Neither the port nor HRK obtained a required $2 million insurance policy, signed into that contract, before work began last spring.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.

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