Florida to Sue Company That Owns Leaky Wastewater Pond That Forced Evacuations

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FLDEP) said Tuesday that the state plans to sue HRK Holdings, the company that owned the leaky Piney Point wastewater reservoir property that poured millions of gallons of water into Tampa Bay and forced evacuations of homes, businesses and farms.

"Stay tuned for litigation," FLDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said, according to the Associated Press.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also announced Tuesday that he directed the FLDEP to develop a permanent closure plan for the site, adding that "we want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story."

The reservoir, which is just south of Tampa in Manatee County, near waterways that flow into Tampa Bay, developed a leak earlier this month and triggered the evacuations of more than 300 residencies and businesses near the area.

For more reporting from Newsweek, see below:

Manatee County, Florida, officials urged residents to evacuate on April 3, pending the "imminent" collapse of a protective liner in a wastewater pond at the Piney Point phosphate plant.

"Evacuate NOW," an extreme-level emergency phone alert sent around 11 a.m. that day read.

The alert followed an evacuation order residents received a day earlier after a leak was discovered in the plastic liner of the 80-acre pond that holds 800 million gallons of the site's wastewater, which contain phosphorous and nitrogen, according to the Miami Herald. Officials feared sudden flooding to the surrounding area if the liner were to collapse and release the remaining polluted water in the pond.

By Saturday, the pond had already discharged at least 25 million gallons of polluted water into Port Manatee, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Environmentalists worry that the discharge, which contains phosphorus and nitrogen, will damage the bay's ecosystem.

By April 5, the state's DEP announced that the toxic seepage had stopped.

Environmental group ManaSota-88 said that Piney Point structural conditions were known for a significant period before the recent emergency. The group said that officials had "mismanaged" the site for decades.

"The current crisis can be traced back to the absurd 2006 decision to allow dredged material from Port Manatee to be placed into one of the gyp stacks at Piney Point, something the stack was never designed for and should have never been allowed," the statement read.

Piney Point
A view of the former Piney Point phosphate plant grounds, where a possible wastewater breach could impact nearby neighborhoods, on April 5, 2021, in Gillette, Florida. Octavio Jones/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

There are about two dozen other similar phosphate waster reservoirs in Florida, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They hold about 1 billion tons of phosphogypsum stacks similar to those at Piney Point. The EPA also says about 90 percent of the nation's phosphate is mined in Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee

HRK Holdings bought the Piney Point property in 2006 and promised a cleanup. Instead, the company filed for bankruptcy following a 2011 spill of 170 million gallons.

Wilton Simpson, the Republican president of the Florida Senate, said lawmakers would work to fully fund the cleanup and closure of Piney Point. The Legislature is currently in session.

"By the end of session, we'll have a closure plan," Simpson said.

DeSantis said Tuesday that $15.4 million in existing agency funds would be used to treat the wastewater to reduce the nutrients that can cause algae blooms and fish kills.