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Environmental groups, Florida regulators settle lawsuit over massive 2021 contaminated water spill

Environmental groups and regulators in Florida have reached a settlement over the leak of millions of gallons of contaminated water from a phosphate processing plant reservoir into Tampa Bay in 2021, which caused a mass fish die-off and the temporary evacuation of dozens of nearby residents.

The settlement, filed Monday in federal court in Tampa, requires the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to issue a permit under the Clean Water Act that will provide oversight and accountability for any future discharges from the Piney Point facility, said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The facility near the mouth of Tampa Bay in Manatee County operated for 20 years without a permit. It is in the process of being closed, and contaminated water is now being pumped into wells deep underground.

“It’s definitely too little, too late. It’s something (state regulators) could have done a long time ago,” Whitlock said Tuesday. “But the facility will continue to be a threat to Tampa Bay for a long time to come.”

In addition to the permit, the settlement calls for the state to pay $75,000 to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to monitor water quality near Piney Point.

The tank contained piles of gypsum, a slightly radioactive byproduct of phosphate fertilizer production. After its owner went bankrupt, the state took over its operation and allowed it to store dredge material there, according to the lawsuit. The leak occurred when cracks in a plastic liner threatened to cause a major rupture that could have released even more contaminated water if some were not released.

Because of this potentially catastrophic threat, county officials issued evacuation orders for communities near the reservoir in April 2021, and Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the site. The reservoir, which leaked an estimated 215 million gallons (814 million liters) of water, is one of three at the Piney Point site, two of which have not yet been drained.

In addition to the evacuations, the contaminated release triggered a toxic red tide outbreak that killed more than 600 tons of fish and other aquatic life in the summer of 2021 around Tampa Bay. The state Legislature has allocated about $100 million to permanently close Piney Point, which is estimated to be completed in mid-2025.

“It wasn’t that long ago that shorelines that were once teeming with life were littered for months with all kinds of dead fish,” said Justin Tramble, executive director of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, who was also involved in the lawsuit. “This brings some closure to the past and shifts the focus to making sure there are mechanisms in place to prevent even greater tragedy in the future.”

There are about two dozen similar phosphate wastewater ponds in Florida, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They hold about 1 billion tons of gypsum piles similar to the ones at Piney Point.