Policy failures mark Port Manatee-Piney Point project

November 25, 2012 

One troubling revelation after another continues to expose the policy blunders and poor judgment that surrounds the Piney Point environmental disaster in May 2011.

n Most recently, a Herald investigation found that Port Manatee and HRK Holdings LLC drafted a request for $5.4 million from the state to clean up the mess from the Piney Point spill of 170 million gallons of toxic water into Tampa Bay. The two partners in a berth dredging project hoped to mitigate financial losses over clean-up costs and litigation by the dredging contractor.

But port officials failed to inform the Port Authority, comprised of Manatee County commissioners, and never received any authority to pursue the legislation.

Port and HRK representatives went so far as to meet with state Department of Environmental Protection to win the agency's backing, but the proposal never got a hearing in the Legislature. DEP declines to explain why the agency withdrew its support.

Why were commissioners kept in the dark about this? Port officials should have been communicating every step in the process. Policy dictates board consent on such matters.

n More unsettling is the admitted failure of Port Manatee to properly vet HRK well before entering into a contract. Neither did the state.

The port and DEP had a responsibility to perform due diligence with every company associated with this vital dredging project, especially when dealing with a startup company such as HRK and a problematic site such as Piney Point.

HRK bought the old polluted phosphate facility in 2006 as a place to store dedging material even though abandoned gypsum stacks had never served such a purpose. In May 2011, dredging material exposed to highly radioactive phosphate waste in the stacks spilled into Bishop Harbor when pipes and liners sprang leaks.

HRK founder and Chairman William "Mickey" F. Harley III, a shareholder and board member of Frederick's of Hollywood who also operates three Hooters restaurants on Long Island, is now mired in lawsuits. In one, a giant Pittsburgh nonprofit claims Harley defrauded the organization out of $2 million.

Jim Mikes, who is also suing Harley in connection with his role at Piney Point, asserts that he warned port officials about Harley's history a long time ago but was ignored. Why didn't the port pursue due diligence?

n The port and HRK failed to obtain joint liability insurance worth $2 million before dredging began, a violation of their 2007 contract. And the signed contract never got amended to reflect the lack of insurance, documents indicate. Was this irresponsible action part of a rush to complete the project?

n The environmental mess could have been prevented had the DEP followed its own policies and rejected HRK's request for a waiver on a vital safeguard to the stacks, allowing the company to avoid covering liners exposed to the elements for years. The agency had another opportunity to halt the project when a rip in the liner was discovered months before the toxic spill occurred from another rupture.

HRK, ensnared in bankruptcy proceedings, is not abiding by state deadlines for corrective actions on environmental violations. Since the threat of another massive leak from overflowing reservoirs remains, DEP has been forced to step in and perform emergency measures to prevent that. Florida taxpayers are probably on the hook for $15.8 million in Piney Point clean-up costs.

None of the central figures in this long string of missteps can escape blame. More and more, this chain of events looks like a "damn the torpedos, full speed ahead" strategy to complete the project -- vital to the future of the port and the county's economic growth.

But the rush is proving too costly -- to the environment, where the threat continues; in clean-up; and in litigation and settlement bills. In the future, tread lightly around the ill-fated Piney Point.

Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras began his tenure here at the beginning of this year, well after the dredging project became mired in the environmental disaster and subsequent controversy. We hope that his presence and expertise will curb this kind of reckless activity in the future, and the port commits to greater public transparency.

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