Legislature Looks To Future For Piney Point

Todays News

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING THURSDAY APR 8, 2021

The Florida Senate on Wednesday added $3 million to its state budget proposal to cover immediate cleanup costs at Piney Point. The same day, the House Pandemic and Public Emergency Committee held a hearing on how to get dollars back.

At that House hearing, state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, D-St. Petersburg, pressed Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein on when and how Piney Point property owners HRK Holdings will pay its fair share. “With conversations about HRK being bankrupt, how do we practically hold them accountable,” she asked.

Valenstein said lawyers for the state have already begun developing strategies for forcing those individuals attached to the company responsible for the environmental disaster at the Manatee County site. The owners had previously entered into an agreement to clean up three reservoirs of polluted water, but that never happened because of the company’s financial issues. He also noted the site is the only abandoned gypsum stack, meaning a reservoir retaining industrial waste water, that still stands in Florida that is not owned by an active company.

Notably, evacuation orders on more than 300 homes around Piney Point were lifted on Tuesday. The state, in cooperation with the Army Corps of Engineers, has pumped roughly 175 million gallons of water out of a breached reservoir and into Port Manatee. Valenstein said engineers made sure not to pump it into an environmentally sensitive area, but the nutrient-rich water does bring risk of algal blooms. Still, it had to be removed to relieve pressure so a breach could be repaired and to reduce the risk of a full collapse, which could cause flash floods with water walls taller that 20 feet.

While the cost of the response has yet to be calculated, Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, won support for an amendment to the state budget that diverts $3 million to cleaning up Piney Point. “Thank you for addressing the problem you all have seen go on in our neighborhood,” Boyd said on the Senate floor.

That’s a small piece of what could be a major rehab project on the site. Senate President Wilton Simpson this week came out in favor of diverting funding from the COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress toward Piney Point. State officials say all three ponds on the site need to be drained and the open pits capped and graded level. That could run up costs of $200 million or more.

Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes, though, said while current lawmakers and officials did not create the problem, it’s their responsibility to fix it.

“We averted a catastrophe,” he told state lawmakers Wednesday. “We were successful. But we have to deal with what’s on that site. This needs to be the last chapter of the Piney Point story.”

Aerial photo by Rep. Will Robinson shows depleted reservoir as of Tuesday.

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