Keep public informed about Piney Point probe

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection cannot continue to be silent on an internal investigation into the Piney Point disaster. The agency shares the blame for the release of 170 million gallons of toxic water into Bishop Harbor in May 2011.

The site remains an environmental threat as its owner, HRK Holdings LLC, grapples with bankruptcy while working to prevent another leak. At the request of ManaSota-88, the DEP opened an investigation more than a month ago in a one-paragraph reply to the environmental watchdog organization.

The state agency declines to comment on the status of the internal probe, a troubling sign. DEP has stuck by its oversight of the 675-acre site, even though the agency ignored its own guidelines by granting HRK a waiver on safety measures that might have prevented the disastrous spill. The agency's credibility is on the line should other embarrassing conclusions be found.

The lack of communication has prompted ManaSota-88 to take the fight to the federal Environmental Protection Agency with a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act. One way or another, the public deserves to be kept informed about this contaminated site.

A former phosphate plant, Piney Point served as a disposal site for Port Manatee's Berth 12 dredging but storage liners in the phosphate gypsum stacks ruptured last year and toxic water rushed into the harbor. Since August, HRK has been diverting water from Piney Point's full reservoirs into an emergency tank not designed for that function, a problem should heavy rains hit.

This water has been contaminated with highly radioactive phosphate waste composed of ammonia, nitrogen and phosphate, ingredients that spawn algae blooms deadly to aquatic wildlife. Should the gypsum stacks fail, the region would suffer another environmental catastrophe.

This situation remains bleak. HRK still has not repaired a punctured liner, one of eight deficiencies that the company needs to solve before reaching compliance with state mandates. The company's chief executive, Jordan Levy, told the DEP that "HRK does not have the financial resources to address the critical conditions that currently exist."

He also holds the agency responsible for the liner failures as part of the state's closure duties at Piney Point. Florida taxpayers have already pumped $143 million into site cleanup after Mulberry Phosphates abandoned the fertilizer plant in 2001. Now the state is on the hook for another $15.8 million in cleanup costs should HRK collapse.

We applaud ManaSota-88 for aggressively pursuing action. As Chairman Glenn Compton told Herald reporter Josh Salman last week, "The only place left to turn is the federal government. The time for this has passed. The problem is Piney Point is a radioactive 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."

The state of Florida must be held accountable for that task -- and for revealing the truth about how this situation deteriorated under DEP's watch.