Florida Governor Ron DeSantis vows to close wastewater plant for good after near

Piney Point, the former phosphate mining facility that leaked millions of gallons of wastewater near Tampa Bay, will soon take steps toward “permanent closure,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said Tuesday. 

A leak broke through one of the facility’s wastewater ponds last month, spewing millions of gallons of wastewater into the environment. Though officials got the leak under control last week and were able to redirect it to stay onsite instead of flowing into a nearby creek, part of that process entailed pumping untreated wastewater from the reservoir into Port Manatee, which leads into Tampa Bay. 

DeSantis spoke from Port Manatee on Tuesday, saying “we’ve made good strides” since he visited the facility on Easter Sunday, and that officials have “mitigated the imminent threat to public safety.” 

On Saturday, a steel plate was installed in the leaking south pond to stop the breach. The pond still has 221 million gallons of waste- and stormwater, according to the state’s most recent data. Piezometers have also been installed around the pond to detect any water pressure changes and “help ensure the integrity of the stack system.” 

“We want this to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “So today I’m directing the Department of Environmental Protection to create a plan to close Piney Point.” 

DeSantis said he’s redirected $15.4 million from existing appropriations at the department to be used to treat the remaining wastewater at Piney Point “in the event that further controlled discharges are needed.” The treatment, he said, is intended to reduce any “potential environmental impacts.” 

WATCH LIVE: Press Conference in Manatee Countyhttps://t.co/Q3zfJWXqz8

— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) April 13, 2021

The environment, however, may already be affected. 

As of Tuesday, more than 215 million gallons of wastewater have been pumped into the bay. Water samples collected from the port and Piney Point Creek show extremely high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which can be toxic for marine life. The Department of Environmental Protection told CBS News on Saturday there are “visual observations” of increased algae in the water. 

According to environmental officials, the total nitrogen concentration in marine water should be limited to 0.74 milligrams per liter. On March 31, however, almost a week after wastewater started seeping from the reservoir, a water sample from Piney Point Creek registered 191.5 milligrams per liter of nitrogen. 

In Port Manatee on April 5, a water sample detected 2.1 milligrams per liter of orthophosphate, a form of phosphorus. This reading was 21 times higher than the marine quality standard for phosphorus, which is 0.10 milligrams per liter. 

On Tuesday, DeSantis also echoed the continued calls to hold HRK Holdings, the company that owns the former phosphate mining facility, accountable. HRK has owned Piney Point since the early 2000s, and in 2011, a similar leak occurred from the same reservoir responsible for the most recent issue, according to the Bradenton Herald. That leak prompted the company to file for bankruptcy. 

“I’m further directing DEP to fully investigate the incidents here at Piney Point and to take any and all legal actions to ensure we hold HRK, and any other actors, fully accountable,” DeSantis said. 

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said that lawyers are already working on a case against HRK and “any corporate entities” that may have been involved with the facility’s maintenance. 

Last week, the Florida senate approved $3 million to clean and safely dispose of Piney Point’s wastewater. Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, who has vowed to use the state’s stimulus money to help fully close Piney Point, said the handling of the situation was “a disaster avoided,” and said legislators will work with the department to ensure the closure is fulfilled. 

Simpson anticipates that legislators will end up appropriating $100 million for the initial funding of the facility shutdown. 

“The object is to come back next year and have a fully funded plan,” he said. 

Officials have not said if there are any plans to close any of the 26 other phosphate mining facilities throughout the state. The facilities cover more than 450,000 acres of land, and nine of the mining facilities are currently active, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.