State seeking 'maximum possible penalties' in lawsuit against Piney Point owner

The state of Florida has filed a lawsuit against the company that oversees the old Piney Point fertilizer plant wastewater holding ponds that spilled hundreds of millions of gallons into Tampa Bay earlier this year. 

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it has filed a complaint in Manatee County courts to hold HRK Holdings, LLC accountable to environmental laws. DEP said it is seeking the maximum possible penalties and recovery of costs from the company.

The lawsuit says HRK Holdings failed to comply with Florida law related to the safe operation of phosphogypsum stack systems, and surface and groundwater standards. The suit also says HRK broke its agreement with DEP to remove the wastewater from the site by 2019.

The complaint also asks for a third party to be appointed to oversee the management and final closure of the site.

Piney Point wastewater leak: A history of the former phosphate plant site

As of July 15, 2021, the state of Florida has spent $45.7 million on emergency contracting at the Piney Point facility.  In addition to repayment of those funds, the lawsuit says HRK owes $50,000 per day in civil penalties for failure to remove water by 2019, and $15,000 per day for violations of surface and groundwater standards and failure to meet financial requirements. 

While there is an ongoing foreclosure action between HRK and their mortgage holder, the DEP lawsuit would not affect HRK’s ownership of the property. 

READ: Residents want more action, less talk when it comes to deciding the fate of Piney Point

Approximately 266 million gallons of the wastewater are still held in the south compartment at Piney Point. 

In the short term, DEP says HRK is still tasked with ensuring stack integrity and water management to prevent flooding, overtopping of lined areas and uncontrolled discharges. HRK is also required to develop water management plans and submit them to DEP for review. 

HRK is currently working to finalize those plans. Once finalized, the department will review the plans to ensure they meet all regulatory requirements. DEP will also maintain key resources that were deployed onsite in response to the emergency conditions, such as water treatment and pumping systems, to ensure there are environmental protections in place and that progress can be made at the site. 

READ: Impact of Piney Point water release on Tampa Bay may not be known for months

Should HRK not be able to fulfill its obligations, DEP said it is prepared to take action to abate any emergency situations and ensure the facility is properly managed and operated. If the department’s request for a court-appointed receiver is granted, the receiver will assume site management responsibilities.

"DEP’s priority continues to be the protection of human health and safety and the minimization of any potential impacts to the environment. We are committed to maintaining stringent regulatory oversight of activities at the site as we move forward with this enforcement action," said DEP Interim Secretary Shawn Hamilton. "The ultimate goal remains closure of the site once and for all. We are confident the court appointed receivership requested through this complaint will pave the way to expediting this process."