Florida state agency review of Piney Point oversight must address questions

At the request of the ManaSota-88 environmental watchdog organization, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection is opening an internal investigation into the agency's botched handling of Piney Point. With a fresh spill of contaminated water looming, the agency's oversight of last year's Port Manatee dredging project and HRK Holdings LLC's Piney Point water storage site has begged for review for months.

Herald reporter Josh Salman's dogged investigation into the May 2011 spill of 170 million gallons of toxic water into Bishop Harbor has revealed the disaster was predictable and preventable. DEP and HRK bear the bulk of the responsibility, but the state agency -- as the public's shield against private enterprise gone awry -- violated this sacrosanct covenant on several occasions.

With the DEP's inspector general's office opening a preliminary inquiry into agency oversight of Piney Point after previously holding out against a probe, at least DEP recognizes a review is necessary -- though that only came upon ManaSota-88's threat of a lawsuit.

The investigation's conclusions must answer these questions:

n As the environmental organization notes in its investigation request, a July 2009 agency risk analysis pointed out problems with the use of Piney Point's gypsum stacks as reservoirs for the dredging material from Port Manatee's Berth 12 expansion project.

Still, the state approved permits for the project. Why?

n Months before the May 2011 leak, DEP learned of a crane accident at the site and ordered an inspection of the entire 350-acre structure. HRK discovered a 6-inch rip in the liner in February 2011, and the company repaired the damage only a few weeks before the start of Berth 12 dredging.

Why didn't the state inform either Port Manatee or the Port Authority of this incident? That rip should have served as a warning about the potential for disaster, as we opined in July when this came to light.

n But worse yet, liner damage could have been avoided. In 2006, DEP suspected sun exposure would weaken the structure and ordered HRK to cover the site with dirt as protection from heat -- a common safeguard and one the agency always required.

But with an estimated cost of $4 million for dirt, HRK requested a waiver from DEP after the company agreed to accept financial liability in the event of a disaster. The agency granted the request.

The agency reckoned dredge material would also protect the liner, but the project did not get under way for five years. Stress cracks developed from this long-term exposure to heat, an avoidable outcome.

What compelled the agency to approve HRK's request for a waiver and ignore its own guidelines?

n A study commissioned by HRK after the 2011 leak indicated the spill should have been expected because the liner seams bonded improperly and heat-induced stress cracks had punctured the liner months before dredge material was pumped into the stacks.

How did the February 2011 site inspection fail to reveal this? HRK's report states the cracks along welds existed for months if not years before water was pumped into the gypsum stacks.

We expect answers to these questions will demonstrate deficiencies in state oversight of Piney Point. Kudos to ManaSota-88 for requesting a DEP review.

The repercussions continue. With HRK in bankruptcy protection proceedings and Piney Point lacking proper maintenance, the site's reservoirs are expected to overflow in early September and send another torrent of toxic water into waterways, creating a new threat to aquatic life.

But with Tropical Storm Isaac heading in this direction, a sudden torrential downpour could hasten a breaching of the Piney Point reservoirs.

Should HRK fail to meet its liability obligations, the state will be on the hook for an estimated $15.8 million bill to clean up the Piney Point mess. Shamefully, the cost of the DEP's oversight failures could be borne by taxpayers.