Problems at Piney Point could go to Washington

PALMETTO -- A local environmental group is taking its fight against Piney Point to Washington, D.C.

More than a month after ManaSota-88 requested the Florida Department of Environmental Protection open an internal investigation into its handling of Piney Point, the state agency has offered little cooperation.

A one-paragraph letter mailed to ManaSota-88 Chairman Glenn Compton said the DEP initiated a "preliminary inquiry" into the decade-long debacle that ultimately sent 170 million gallons of toxic water gushing into Bishop Harbor when a liner in the phosphate gypsum stacks ripped in May 2011.

But communication between the two sides has faltered since that August correspondence. DEP case inspector Hyatt Sudano has not returned calls or emails, Compton said.

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.

The DEP, which declined to comment on the investigation Thursday, has repeatedly stood by its oversight at the 675-acre Piney Point property adjacent to Port Manatee. HRK Holdings LLC, an embattled firm that now owns the site, also could not be reached Thursday.

"The only place left to turn is the federal government," Compton said. "The time for this has passed. The problem is Piney Point is a radioac

tive hot potato and nobody wants it, but these agencies are here to protect the environment, and someone has to step up and do that job."

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.

ManaSota-88 has formally complained about what it believes to be numerous violations to the terms of the dredging permit issued by the DEP.

The environmental watch group points to the DEP's risk analysis in July 2009, which identified major concerns about using gypsum stacks as dredging storage reservoirs almost two years before the project began. Even though it had never be done before, the state approved the permit anyway, records show.

ManaSota-88 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.

"It's been difficult to communicate with DEP," Compton said. "I don't know if that's by design, but we're looking at a crisis situation here. ... There's no easy solution to what's going on right now."

A series of Bradenton Herald reports have revealed the toxic spill could have been avoided had the state stopped the project when a liner tear similar to one that ultimately became responsible for the pollution was discovered months before the dredging began.

State officials never notified port staff of any previous problems before the spill. The DEP also allowed HRK Holdings to get by without a commonly used protective dirt cover on the gypsum stack, which could have prevented some of the damage that's believed to have contributed to the tear, records show.

And the threat at Piney Point remains far from over.

Since Aug. 25, HRK has been piping contaminated water from Piney Point's main reservoirs into an emergency tank never designed for that purpose because the gypsum stacks reached capacity.

That process is expected to continue for the next couple of weeks, according to DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.

"There have been no problems," she said.

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.

An estimated 13 million cubic yards of tainted water could be released if the stacks were to fail.

Now battling Chapter 11 bankruptcy, HRK has fewer assets than outstanding liabilities. If the firm were to crumble before Piney Point is safely shut down, the DEP would be left to pick up the pieces -- using $15.8 million worth of taxpayer money to clean up a site that already has seen $143 million in public funds come its way since Mulberry Phosphates abandoned the former fertilizer processing facility in 2001, according to records.

Another 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.

HRK proposed in federal court last week a plan to borrow another $3.5 million from Regions Bank and allocate $2.5 million of it to bring the former phosphate plant into compliance. HRK would keep the remaining $1 million for operating capital until its bankruptcy case is resolved.

The company has filed a lawsuit against the contractors and engineers hired by the DEP to preform work on the stacks.

"FDEP, through its consultants and contractors, was responsible and remains liable for addressing the liner failures as part of its closure duties at the site," HRK CEO Jordan Levy wrote to the state. "HRK does not have the financial resources to address the critical conditions that currently exist."

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