Guest Editorials, Opinion

Holding everyone responsible for disaster at Florida fertilizer plant

The environmental crisis at the old Piney Point fertilizer plant didn’t originate overnight, and blame doesn’t fall only on the land’s private owner, HRK Holdings. That’s why it is good that a coalition of environmental groups announced its intention to sue state and local agencies in addition to the company for the pollution that poured into Tampa Bay. 

The groups announced their intention Tuesday to file a case against HRK, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Manatee County Port Authority. Last month, the state environmental agency issued an emergency order allowing HRK to discharge about 215 million gallons of polluted water from the site into Tampa Bay. The move was designed to prevent a potential collapse of a leaking reservoir at the Palmetto property, where ponds hold a mix of polluted process water, seawater and rainwater. Scientists are tracking any impacts from the release, as environmentalists are concerned the nutrient-rich water could fuel algal blooms, harming property, water quality and marine life in Tampa Bay.

While the state’s order was aimed at preventing a catastrophic failure of the reservoir, and the threat of a resulting flood, the situation at Piney Point should have never been allowed to deteriorate. Within the last two years, state and local officials were warned that wastewater ponds were approaching capacity at Piney Point, and a plastic liner holding in water could fail, according to lawyers for the environmental groups, which include the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation.

The legal action comes in the wake of an exhaustive Tampa Bay Times report last month that found that HRK, Manatee County and the state all had a hand in what became a crisis. As early as 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was predicting possible disaster at the old plant if a plan to use the site for dredging went forward. Army Corps officials warned the Manatee County Port Authority, which was counting on the increase in dredging business. They warned the state DEP, which stood to show it could transform a costly mess into an asset. And those warnings reached HRK Holdings, which planned to make millions from storing dredge material. All of them pushed back. And then the worst happened. The liner failed almost immediately after dredging began. And now 10 years later, it happened again.

“It’s not just one entity that is responsible for the problems created at Piney Point,” said Glenn Compton, chair of local environmental group ManaSota-88. “It’s a culmination of a lot of mismanagement that’s taken place for decades.”

This editorial  first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday]. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.