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Phosphate processing plants in the greater Tampa Bay region have caused some of Florida's worst environmental disasters. Accidents like the spill at the former Piney Point plant fill the history books in Florida.

Environmental Groups Sue State Over Piney Point Spill

Photo of Piney_Point_gypstack
Center for Biological Diversity
Piney Point south gypstack

The primary defendant is the state Department of Environmental Regulation, which allowed the plant's operators to refill the gypsum stack several years ago with sea water being dredged at nearby Port Manatee.

A coalition of five environmental groups filed suit in federal court Thursday against the governor, state and operators of the closed Piney Point phosphate plant. A spill at the plant in late March poured about 200 million gallons of nutrient-rich wastewater into Tampa Bay, spawning algae blooms and possibly aggravating red tide.

Justin Bloom is with Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, one of the plaintiffs.

"We hope that this litigation will impact the way that other gypstacks and other facilities - around the state and beyond - are regulated," he said. "We hope that regulation and enforcement will be fortified, and initiated elsewhere, following this litigation."

The lawsuit makes official a notice that the environmental groups gave in May to the state, HRK Holdings - which operates the plant - and Manatee County Port Authority.

Bloom said the primary defendant is the state Department of Environmental Regulation, which allowed the plant's operators to refill the gypsum stack several years ago with sea water being dredged at nearby Port Manatee.

"The purpose of the lawsuit is to seek a full and final closure of Piney Point, to make sure that there's adequate remediation of the site, to seek accountability," Bloom said, "particularly by the regulators, who dropped the ball here."

Bloom said he hopes this will help beef up state regulation of other gypsum stacks around the state, so a Piney Point spill doesn't happen again.

The plaintiffs are The Tampa Bay Waterkeeper; Suncoast Waterkeeper; Center for Biological Diversity; Manasota-88; and Our Children's Earth Foundation.

"The Piney Point disaster is Exhibit A in a long list of Florida’s failures to protect our water and wildlife from the harms of phosphogypsum,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Even as state officials scramble to clean up Piney Point, they have drafted a permit to authorize a 230-acre expansion of the sinkhole-prone New Wales gypstack that leaked 215 million gallons of wastewater into the Floridan aquifer.”

Added Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88: "Events at the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant clearly demonstrate that not enough is being done to safeguard the public or the environment from the devastating impacts that the phosphate industry is having on Florida. Piney Point represents the true legacy the phosphate industry will leave behind. There is no economically feasible or environmentally sound way to close an abandoned gyp stack. This legacy includes the perpetual spending of taxpayer monies and risks to the public’s health and the environment.”

According to the lawsuit:

Piney Point is an ongoing threat to public health and the environment due to:

  • The discharge of 215 million gallons of toxic wastewater into Tampa Bay, which is now experiencing harmful algae blooms and fish kills;
  • The threat of catastrophic failure of its impoundments and/or stack system;
  • The site’s failing liners;
  • Violations of groundwater-quality standards and evidence that dangerous levels of pollution have migrated into the aquifer; and
  • The choice of an unproven and high-risk wastewater disposal method called deep-well injection to store hazardous waste at Piney Point.

Piney Point was a problematic phosphate fertilizer plant that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection turned into a disposal site for dredge material. After the owner went bankrupt and abandoned the property, the department owned and operated Piney Point from 2001 to 2004. The agency oversaw the installation of inadequate liners and approved the use of the site for dredged material storage, despite knowing the Piney Point gyp stacks were at risk of failure due to foundation settling and other problems.

Florida regulators ignored the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ advice to reject the dredge proposal because of the gyp stacks’ structural uncertainties, the hazardous and toxic material in the stacks, and documented past slope stability and piping issues.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.