State begins internal inquiry into handling of Piney Point operation

PALMETTO -- The Florida Department of Environmental Protection's inspector general office has opened a preliminary inquiry into the agency's handling of Piney Point.

The review comes in response to a formal request for an internal investigation two weeks ago by local environmental advocacy group ManaSota-88.

The nonprofit watchdog group sent a letter Aug. 6 to DEP officials, challenging any state oversight that may have contributed to the 170-million-gallon toxic spill into Bishop Harbor last year, when the liners housing storage from Port Manatee's Berth 12 dredging project sprang leaks.

"We'll have to wait and see what kind of investigation they do," ManaSota-88 Chairman Glenn Compton said. "Whatever they're going to do, I hope they initiate it soon. It's always difficult for an agency to admit they made a mistake, and whether DEP will own up to some of the decisions they made remains to be seen."

In a one-paragraph response dated Aug. 16, the DEP notified ManaSota-88 that a "preliminary inquiry" has been initiated. Inspector Hyatt Sudano has been assigned to the review.

The inspector, who works independently of the engineers and administrators involved in the DEP's day-to-day activities, will now begin to vet the complaint.

The DEP would not provide an estimated time frame for the process.

The department previously has stood by its oversight. HRK Holdings LLC, which owns the 675-acre Piney Point property, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

"The IG's office is in the process of reviewing the information from ManaSota-88," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email statement. "Once the review is completed and it's determined exactly what the IG assessment should entail, the IG's office will obtain any relevant documentation and meet with pertinent DEP staff as needed. Upon completion of their inquiry, the IG's Office will respond to ManaSota-88 further."

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 dredged 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.

In its letter, ManaSota-88 outlines what it believes to be numerous violations to the terms of the dredging permit issued by the DEP, which provided final oversight.

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

The group also 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.

Although Port Manatee and property owner HRK Holdings also were involved in the dredging disposal, ManaSota-88 holds the state responsible for the situation that went awry.

A series of Bradenton Herald reports also have revealed the spill might have been avoided had the state stopped 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 Holdings not to apply a commonly used protective dirt cover over the exterior of the gypsum stack, which could have prevented some of the damage that's believed to have contributed to the tear, records show.

"The port welcomes an investigation by FDEP in response to ManaSota-88's inquiry," said Maggie Mooney, an attorney representing Port Manatee. "Such investigation would confirm the cause of the liner's failure, and the port is hopeful the responsible parties or their insurers will reimburse the port for the damages that have been incurred."

But time is not on the environment's side.

Because Piney Point has not been kept to proper maintenance standards, the reservoirs are expected to overflow by early September -- sending more highly acidic runoff that's potentially deadly to aquatic life into area waterways, according to DEP records.

If HRK Holdings, which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, cannot meet those obligations, the state estimates taxpayers will be left with a $15.8 million tab.

DEP officials could not provide updated capacity levels at the gypsum stacks Tuesday.

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