Environmental groups, Florida regulators settle lawsuit over massive 2021 leak of polluted waters

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Environmental groups and Florida regulators have settled a lawsuit over the 2021 leak of millions of gallons of polluted water from a phosphate plant reservoir into Tampa Bay, which triggered major fish kills 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 Clean Water Act permit that will ensure oversight and accountability for any future discharges from the Piney Point facility, said Ragan Whitlock, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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

“It clearly is too little, too late. This is something (state regulators) could have done a long time ago,” Whitlock said Tuesday. “But the facility will still continue to pose a threat to Tampa Bay for a long time.”

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

The reservoir contained stacks of gypsum, a slightly radioactive byproduct of phosphate fertilizer production. After its owner went bankrupt, the state took over its operation and allowed dredge material to be stored there, according to the lawsuit. The leak was caused when tears in a plastic liner threatened to trigger a major breach that could have unleashed even more contaminated water unless some was released.

Because of that potentially catastrophic threat, county officials in April 2021 issued evacuation orders for communities near the reservoir and Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the site. The reservoir that leaked about 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.

Beyond the evacuations, the contaminated release triggered a toxic red tide outbreak that killed more than 600 tons of fish and other aquatic life in summer 2021 around the Tampa Bay area. The state Legislature has appropriated about $100 million to close Piney Point for good, with estimates for that to be completed in the mid-2025 range.

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

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

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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