Gov. DeSantis promises to hold leaking phosphogypsum stack’s owner responsible for any damage caused by its failure

Gov. Ron DeSantis inspects a failing phosphogypsum storage site near Tampa Bay on April 4, 2021. Credit: Governor's Office

Gov. Ron DeSantis took an aerial view on Easter Sunday of the situation at an old phosphate facility that’s at risk of catastrophic collapse and said the state would hold the owners responsible for any damage to the environment or nearby homes and businesses from any discharge of polluted water.

“While our foremost concern is ensuring the safety of the community, our administration is dedicated for full enforcement of any damages to our state’s resources and holding the company, HRK, accountable for this event,” DeSantis said during a news conference.

“This is not acceptable and it’s not something we will allow to persist,” he said, adding that he has ordered the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to find a permanent fix at the site.

He referred to HRK Holdings’ facilities at the Eastport Terminal facility at Piney Point near Tampa Bay, where a phosphate pilings stack containing 480 million gallons of polluted water has been failing, threatening catastrophic collapse, which would flood nearby neighborhoods and damage the Tampa Bay ecology.

DeSantis on Saturday declared a state of emergency in Manatee, Hillsborough, and Pinellas counties against the possibility as state and local officials oversaw evacuations.

According to interim Manatee County manager Scott Hopes, only 340 gallons remained as of Sunday — still enough to produce a 20-foot wall of water.

DeSantis insisted the water being discharged has tested as not radioactive, a common byproduct of the phosphate mining process, but rather comprises a mix of saltwater, mining “legacy process water,” and stormwater runoff.

“The primary concern is nutrients. The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception primarily of the phosphorus and the nitrogen,” DeSantis said.

The Florida National Guard was deploying additional pumps by air at the site to drain the reservoir into local waterways against a catastrophic collapse, he added.

Hopes said the plan is not to repair the damaged reservoir liner. Instead, “we will be depleting the holding ponds of their water, and then we will be moving forward to a permanent solution into the future,” he said. That likely will entail filling the ponds with solid material and capping them.

Hopes said he hoped the emergency would inspire a permanent fix for phosphate stacks following decades of neglect.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.