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3 years after Piney Point disaster, Florida reaches settlement with environmental groups

Florida environmental regulators on Monday reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit with civil rights groups over the 2021 Piney Point sewage disaster that released 215 million gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay, likely triggering a red tide epidemic that led to a massive fish die-off.

Five environmental groups have agreed to drop their lawsuit against the state once regulators issue a permit aimed at preventing future pollution disasters and laying the groundwork for enforceable oversight of a troubled phosphate plant in Manatee County.

Piney Point operated for more than two decades without a permit issued under the Clean Water Act, which is intended to limit the discharge of pollutants into nearby waterways.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection also agreed to pay $75,000 to monitor water quality in the area where Piney Point’s sewage flows into Tampa Bay. The money will go toward Tampa Bay Estuary Program efforts to track oxygen levels, nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations and other indicators of the bay’s health.

“This decrepit facility has loomed over Tampa Bay for decades without accountability, and this permit changes that,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which litigated the lawsuit.

“In many cases, it is too little, too late,” he added. “Florida has failed to properly regulate this facility, and the damage caused by the 2021 discharge will never be repaired. It is unacceptable that it took citizen lawsuits and a massive pollution enforcement event to force our state regulators to do their job.”

Herb Donica, court-appointed administrator responsible for day-to-day operations at the Piney Point phosphogypsum storage facility, observes an area containing geotextile pipes used to store and discharge dredged sludge from the adjacent phosphogypsum storage facility on November 29, 2023. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

The groups that sued the state, including the nonprofit Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, say the settlement will improve transparency about the quality of water discharged from the plant and reduce pollutants known to cause ecological damage to Florida’s largest open estuary. In their 2021 lawsuit, the groups alleged “a decade of poor decisions by Florida regulators that directly led to this crisis.”

Under the settlement, the state agreed to post online future reports of contaminants leaving the Piney Point facility within 10 days of receiving them. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection did not respond to requests for comment.

The phosphate plant had been skirting environmental laws for more than 20 years, according to Dan Snyder, director of Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project, and organizations had to band together to force the state to comply. The settlement is a victory for Floridians and “shows how important citizen lawsuits are at a time when regulators are too close to polluting industries,” he said.

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A 2023 research paper suggested that a plume of dirty water leaving a troubled phosphate plant in 2021 spread farther than previously thought, flowing beyond Tampa Bay and more than 30 miles into waters near Tarpon Springs. The study adds more scientific evidence to the theory that red tide and other algal blooms that erupted in the summer of 2021 were linked to nutrient-laden discharge from Piney Point.

Herb Donica, court-appointed administrator responsible for day-to-day operations of the Piney Point phosphogypsum storage system, explains stormwater contingencies by showing a graph of a simulated 100-year, 24-hour storm. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

Last year, Manatee County utility crews drilled a well into a saltwater reservoir 3,300 feet below the surface to begin pumping Piney Point’s water underground. As of Friday, more than 209 million gallons of water had been “disposed of” underground, according to Florida environmental regulators. That’s enough water to fill more than 315 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The Tampa Bay Times visited the phosphate plant last year to document progress toward its eventual closure. Herb Donica, a lawyer and court-appointed supervisor for the plant, told the Times that “closing a plant is a rabid animal.” It takes a long time and is expensive, he said.

Although the state-approved plan called for Piney Point to close in December, resort executives said earlier this year that it likely would happen in mid-2025.

After the crash, the site’s owners, HRK Holdings, filed for bankruptcy. The groups that sued the state are still seeking a U.S. district judge to hold the company accountable.

“The Piney Point disaster has shaken the Tampa Bay community to its core. Not long ago, shorelines that were once teeming with life were littered with dead fish of all kinds for months. If you’ve found them floating in Tampa Bay before, they were probably dead after Piney Point,” said Justin Tramble, executive director of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper.

“This brings some closure to the past and allows us to focus on ensuring that we have mechanisms in place to prevent even greater tragedies in the future.”

Environmental compliance technician Scott Martin collects flow meter data while monitoring water transfer between tanks at the Piney Point phosphogypsum storage system Nov. 29. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

The patched area remained intact on November 29, 2023, in the New Gypsum Stack South reservoir in the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack system, where a leak was discovered at Palmetto in April 2021. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )