Who's to blame for the Piney Point wastewater mess -- and its $200M price tag?

State and local government officials say they’ll hold the Piney Point site owner, HRK Holdings, responsible for the environmental cleanup following the leak of polluted water into Tampa Bay and surrounding waters. 

"The bay will be resilient and we will hold HRK accountable," pledged DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein. 

But the troubled history of the Piney Point phosphate processing facility reveals the difficulty of holding previous site managers responsible for incidents dating back to 1970. 

The original owner released waste into Bishop Harbor in 1970.  The site changed owners three times through the 1980s and 1990s. 

The facility had a sulfate leak which caused an evacuation in 1989, and two chemical leaks in 1991. 

It changed hands again, and in 2001 the Mulberry ownership filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the property. It left contaminated ponds sitting on top of mounds of radioactive material for the state to manage. 

The state then discharged millions of gallons of polluted water in 2001 near the bay, and again 2003 into the Gulf of Mexico. 

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

As crews rush to stabilize the Piney Point wastewater leak in Manatee County, many residents who are new to Florida may be hearing about this environmental dilemma for the first time. But it’s not a new issue and the current crisis is years in the making.

The current owner, HRK Holdings, purchased the property in 2006. It agreed to manage the waste, while converting the land around the mounds of waste into an industrial park. 

The registered representative of HRK is a hedge fund manager who markets the Piney Point site as Eastport. HRK earns revenue under the Eastport brand by leasing land at the Piney Point site to government and other companies. 

Records show HRK identified weakness in the plastic liners that hold the polluted water in place last year. Last week, a representative of HRK, Jeff Barath, apologized to the Manatee County Commission for the leak and said HRK was working around the clock to manage the leak. 

"There will likely be impacts in Tampa Bay," he said. "This is very unfortunate. I’m very sorry."

HRK had a previous spill on this site in 2011. Facing mounting costs of cleanup, HRK filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012 and sold some of the land to help pay for the costs of cleanup of that 2011 leak. 

Florida Senate President Wilson Simpson said, "The state is not responsible for this breach at the Piney Point site; but this is an environmental and public health issue that has to be addressed."

Florida lawmakers plan $200M to clean up, close Piney Point reservoir

Florida lawmakers have proposed spending $200 million to clean up and close the wastewater reservoir that triggered evacuations of homes and businesses amid fears it would burst open and cause massive flooding.

On Wednesday, the Senate will consider an amendment to cover the cost of restoration and cleanup of the Piney Point property with non-recurring funds from the federal American Rescue Plan President Biden signed into law.  

Simpson said the costs could approach $200-million

Piney Point: Residents cleared to return home as wastewater levels drop

As crews continue to drain contaminated water from the former Piney Point phosphate plant, the risk of a sudden collapse and subsequent flood is diminishing. Officials now say it will be safe for evacuated neighbors to return home Tuesday evening.