PALMETTO -- The former administrator of the phosphate management program for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection went to work for the engineering contractor at Piney Point just weeks before the Port Manatee dredging project began last year.
Sam Zamani was hired as the director of environment and permitting for the Tampa and Orlando offices of Ardaman and Associates Inc., a firm now facing litigation by the owners of Piney Point for its work on the gypsum stacks.
Because Zamani has a long history of involvement with Piney Point, environmental groups now fear that his relationship with the department that employed him for 35 years may have contributed to the questionable oversight that led to the spill of 170 million gallons of toxic water into Bishop Harbor.
Ardaman President Nadim Fuleihan did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday. Zamani also could not be reached.
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"It raises a red flag," said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, an environmental nonprofit seeking an investigation of the state's role in Piney Point.
"It could lead to a situation where there's less oversight," Compton said. "The state might not have forced the requirements they would have otherwise if they didn't have this past relationship."
But the DEP stands by its decisions throughout the process. The agency contends it maintained the integrity of the permitting review at Piney Point regardless of Zamani's or any other employee's role.
"The Department's review of permit applications is not influenced by the entity making the application, the owners or officers of the entity, or the identity or former positions of any employee of such entity," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said
in an email statement. "Zamani's employment with Ardaman, whatever his duties are there, does not affect the Department's review of any permit application by Ardaman or any of Ardaman's clients."
In working for the DEP, Zamani headed the state's regulation of the phosphate industry, where one of his primary roles was to ensure the mining and fertilizer processing operations didn't harm the environment.
But almost immediately after his retirement, Zamani went to work for the one of the largest engineering firms in Florida that provides services for the phosphate industry -- including building dikes and dams, and providing repair for the roughly two dozen gypsum stacks around the state.
During his time at the DEP, Zamani also helped lead a charge to require third-party engineers like Ardaman on the construction and maintenance of all gypsum stacks.
He was replaced by the DEP's former compliance and enforcement manager who worked under Zamani for 15 years and helped craft administrative agreements like the one for Piney Point.
Laws exist in Florida that prevent attorneys and certain government administrators from taking a private sector job that deals directly with the people and projects they used to oversee. Zamani's rank with the DEP did not fall under the parameters of that rule. But the reasoning behind the law and concerns that could arise still remain, said Thomas Reese, a St. Petersburg environmental attorney.
"Sam (Zamani) should not have taken that job," Reese said. "People are not supposed to work for state agencies and then basically lobby the employees they used to supervise."
Zamani is not the only stakeholder involved closely with Piney Point that also had a previous relationship with the DEP.
Jeff Barath, who now works for Piney Point owner HRK Holdings LLC, previously provided consulting for the DEP at the former phosphate facility for about two years when he was with Environmental Consulting and Technology Inc.
Barath then went on to manage the site for HRK, which included regular correspondence with DEP officials throughout the permitting approval process. Barath and HRK Chief Executive Jordan Levy did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Piney Point is a 675-acre former phosphate facility purchased by the now-bankrupt HRK Holdings in 2006 to serve as a disposal ground for Port Manatee's Berth 12 dredging project -- a $200 million decade-long expansion to allow for 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.
A series of Bradenton Herald reports show the toxic spill could have been averted had the state halted the project when a liner tear was discovered months before the dredging began. State officials never notified port staff of any previous problems before the toxic spill.
The DEP also allowed HRK, and the contractors at Piney Point, to get by without a commonly used dirt cover -- designed to protect the liner from some of the damage that's believed to have contributed to the tear.
Piney Point was abandoned by Mulberry Phosphates in 2001, when the firm filed for bankruptcy, leaving the DEP tasked with bringing the massive plant up to environmental standards.
The state spent more than $143 million in taxpayer money to clean up the site. Now a decade later, another $15.8 million in estimated environmental costs remain, with questions again surrounding who will pick up that tab.
Eight deficiencies still remain at Piney Point, including a punctured liner that has not been repaired since the spill, a storage ditch contaminated with dredging sediment and high levels of ammonia on site.
An estimated 13 million cubic yards of tainted water could still be released if the stacks, which have reached full capacity and are now pumping liquid into emergency containers, were to fail.
The water housed in the reservoirs 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.
Ardaman and Environmental Consulting and Technology Inc. provided a study in 2009 used in the state permitting process that the showed the reservoirs to be structurally sound. HRK is now suing the contractor, which also was hired to provide emergency work to help plug the leak last year.
HRK has since commissioned its own study pointing all of the blame back at Ardaman -- and other contractors involved in Piney Point -- for the malfunction, including over-welding at the seams of the stacks.
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman