Gov. DeSantis announces ‘last chapter’ for Piney Point, promises legal consequences for the eco-disaster site’s owner

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

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday declared the ecological emergency ended at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County, which forced release of hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water, and announced plans to permanently close the facility.

“We want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story,” the governor said during a news conference at the site. “So, today I’m directing the Department of Environmental Protection to create a plan to close Piney Point.”

DeSantis said the Department of Environmental Protection would spend $15.4 million to develop “innovative technology to pretreat water at the site for nutrients so that, in the event that further controlled discharges are needed, any potential adverse environmental impacts such as algal blooms and fish kills are mitigated.”

The agency will continue to monitor the site, he said.

“I’m further directing DEP to fully investigate the incidents here at Piney Point and to take any and all legal actions to hold HRK and any other actors fully accountable,” DeSantis said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

He referred to HRK Holdings, which owns the 646-acre site. Emphasizing the legal jeopardy to the company, the news conference played out before a Florida Department of Law Enforcement mobile command post.

The announcement came one day after Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat from Hillsborough County, called upon Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody to investigate the disaster and hold the owner responsible.

Bonnie Malloy, an attorney with the environment legal organization Earthjustice, welcomed the development but said more is needed.

“The state has to make adequate investment to clean the water, close the site, and make commitments to regulation and enforcement that ensures we are never on the edge of a disaster like this again,”  Malloy said in a written statement.

“This is a first step, and we need to see the follow through before we celebrate. The DEP needs to investigate the other Florida phosphate waste sites and be proactive in managing this threat. At this point, there’s no excuse for any of these phosphate facilities to escape scrutiny.”

DeSantis declared a state of emergency over Easter weekend amid high risk that leaks from a phosphogypsum stack left behind by the fertilizer plant could fail catastrophically, sending a 20-foot wave of water polluted with phosphates and nitrogen into surrounding neighborhoods — and ultimately, into Tampa Bay.

To ease pressure on the failing embankment, the state pumped more than 200 million gallons of the polluted water into surrounding streams, which also feed the bay. Such releases can cause red tide and algal blooms that kill fish and other wildlife.

Under a variety of owners, Piney Point has repeatedly dumped and leaked polluted water since it opened in 1966, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times in 2003 and recapped by Phoenix columnist Craig Pittman, formerly with the Times, on April 6.

Although the officials vowed to hold the owner responsible, the only money discussed thus far would come from the taxpayers.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, who appeared alongside DeSantis on Tuesday, acknowledged as much in an email from his office to the Phoenix.

“The state is not responsible for this breach; however, this is an environmental and public health issue that has to be addressed. Moving forward, the Senate will work with the Governor’s Office and the Office of the Attorney General to help recover any available funds for Florida taxpayers,” he said.

The governor’s office and DEP hasn’t responded yet to questions about the matter.

Simpson said he expects the Legislature, now in its regular annual session, to appropriate $100 million in initial funding toward the site’s closure. Also on hand was Sen. Jim Boyd, who represents Manatee and part of Hillsborough counties. Both, like the governor, are Republicans.

“By the end of the year, we hope to get a full closure plan with a fully funded amount that would be required. And then, the object would be to come back next year and have a fully funded plan,” Simpson said.

DEP technicians have been at the site since the disaster opened monitoring discharges and measuring pollutants, agency secretary Noah Valenstein said.

“Stay tuned for updates on our litigation,” Valenstein said.

Noah Valenstein, Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Credit: DEP

“We are looking and have put together a team who’s able to look at any corporate entities responsible for that, and also whether the facts that we collect allow us to identify any individuals associated with that. We look forward to making our case in court,” he said.

He promised that his agency will change the way it regulates phosphate plants.

“The first change is that, unlike every other chapter of Piney Point, where something like this happened and then somehow there was a new plan to let the site keep going, right? An opportunity to close it and then an opportunity missed,” Valenstein said.

“Let’s not come up with a new business plan to have some company come in and support a future business endeavor on the site. Let’s clean the site up and end it once and for all.”

No one directly addressed the fact that Florida is home to some two dozen additional phosphate sites, but Valenstein indicated that if similar disasters occur elsewhere “we absolutely take a look at that and say, ‘What can we learn from it and what do we need to do from here on forward.”

Asked why his agency allowed conditions at the plant to deteriorate for years, the secretary said: “The more I learn, the less I understand that.”