HRK still dodging Piney Point cleanup

jsalman@bradenton.comOctober 18, 2012 

PALMETTO -- HRK Holdings LLC blew by another deadline set by state regulators to correct environmental violations at its troubled Piney Point property.

The failed response isn't the first time HRK has disregarded regulations from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The lack of action by HRK has forced the agency to take emergency steps to prevent the overflowing reservoirs from sending toxic runoff into nearby waterways.

But the government agency tasked with protecting Florida's environment has yet to hold the embattled firm accountable through any financial or criminal penalties, public records show.

Delays continue to stymie the only funds identified to stabilize the gypsum stacks since a rip in the liner last year spilled 170 million gallons of tainted water into Bishop Harbor.

With HRK's bank accounts tapped dry and a long battle with bankruptcy ahead, concerns are only growing louder for how the company will handle the 13 million cubic yards of highly acidic water still sitting on the property.

"As the owner of the site, HRK has the obligation to fulfill all obligations, including the requirement to provide an action plan for water consumption and management and address all outstanding violations, including using all financial sources available to it in order to meet its obligation," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email statement Wednesday.

"The Department will utilize the resources it has available to it, at the appropriate time, to address any imminent threats to public health, safety and welfare, or the environment should HRK not meet its legal obligations."

The agency declined to

comment further. HRK also has stopped responding to interview requests from the Herald.

Under consent of the DEP, HRK began funneling some of the contaminated water from Piney Point's main reservoirs into a 77-acre emergency container after the stacks reached full capacity from rainfall in late August.

HRK has yet to submit a plan to treat that water as required under the legal provisions of the transfer, which is still underway. That treatment plan was due Sept. 25, according to the DEP.

The agency would not give an example of what an appropriate treatment plan would look like.

Aside from an emergency strategy, HRK also is now seven months past due on a water management for the entire 675-acre property.

Eight deficiencies outlined by the DEP in a June 15 letter to HRK CEO Jordan Levy remain unaddressed including high levels of ammonia on site, a puncture in the storage liner and watershed still contaminated with dredging sediment.

Meanwhile, water continues to accumulate in the stacks leaving environmental stakeholders questioning how HRK is ever going to deal with the volumes.

That water is considered toxic from its exposure to highly radioactive phosphate waste including ammonia, phosphorus and nitrogen -- all of which have been known to trigger algae blooms that can become deadly for aquatic wildlife.

"The DEP is not making this a priority," said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, an environmental group challenging the state's handling of Piney Point. "It's really inexcusable they haven't come up with a plan to make this less of a hazard."

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, the dredge storage liners at Piney Point ruptured, sending 2,700 gallons of toxic water a minute into nearby ditches and ultimately Tampa Bay's Bishop Harbor.

A series of Bradenton Herald reports show last year's toxic spill could have been averted had the state stopped the dredging project when a tear was discovered in the liner months before a similar rupture polluted the harbor. HRK and state officials never notified port staff of any previous problems before the disaster.

The DEP also never applied a commonly used protective dirt cover on the exterior of the gypsum stack, which could have prevented some of the damage that's believed to have contributed to the rips, reports show.

Since Mulberry Phosphates abandoned the fertilizer processing facility in 2001, the state has spent more than $143 million in taxpayer money trying to close Piney Point. At least $15.8 million worth of cleanup remains to bring the site fully up to environmental standards by its scheduled May 1 closure, records show.

The DEP says it has opened an internal inquiry into Piney Point, but case inspector Hyatt Sudano has yet to make contact with ManaSota-88, which requested the investigation nearly three months ago.

ManaSota-88 now is finalizing a lawsuit against the state under the Clean Water Act that would send the investigation to the DEP's federal counterparts at the Environmental Protection Agency.

HRK recently acquired counsel from the legal giant Morgan and Morgan. Representatives from the law firm have reached out to ManaSota-88 to schedule a private meeting to discuss the situation.

During a hearing Wednesday at federal bankruptcy court in Tampa, Judge K. Rodney May approved the sale of about 30 acres of Piney Point to Air Products and Chemicals Inc., sending all of the proceeds to HRK's largest creditor, Regions Bank.

As part of that transaction, HRK will borrow another $2.5 million from Regions to remedy environmental concerns at Piney Point.

But the loan, which will work similar to an escrow account, has been delayed in accordance with the Air Products closing. The Oct. 23 deadline has been pushed back a month.

"The company's operations have been adversely impacted by the spill ...," said Scott Stichter, an attorney representing HRK. "We hope to have everything resolved very soon."

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

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