State asks judge to toss Piney Point phosphate leak lawsuit

by | Dec 7, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Contending that the case is moot, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is asking a federal judge to toss out a lawsuit that targets the state and other defendants over a former phosphate-plant site where massive amounts of polluted water were released this spring to avert a potential catastrophe.

Attorneys for DeSantis and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said Friday in motions to dismiss the case that the state is already working to resolve the problems at the Piney Point site, including with $100 million that lawmakers earmarked in April. Also, a court-appointed receiver has been appointed in a separate case involving Piney Point.

“The Piney Point facility will be closed as swiftly and safely as possible,” attorneys for the Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a 49-page motion Friday. “Mobilizing all three branches of state government, the state of Florida is making considerable progress toward this goal.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, Manasota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation filed the federal lawsuit in June, alleging that the state and other defendants long mishandled the Manatee County site.

The lawsuit came after about 215 million gallons of wastewater were discharged from the site into Tampa Bay in April because of fears about a potentially catastrophic breach of a reservoir. The lawsuit said the discharges, in part, caused harmful algae blooms and fish kills. Also, nearby residents had to be temporarily evacuated because of fears of a breach.

In an amended version of the lawsuit filed last month, attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote that the defendants’ “malfeasance must stop.” The lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Clean Water Act and a law known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

“For decades, defendants have known that the Piney Point phosphate facility threatens imminent and substantial endangerment to Floridians’ lives, health and environment,” the lawsuit said.

In addition to DeSantis and the Department of Environmental Protection, the other defendants are property owner HRK Holdings, LLC and the Manatee County Port Authority — both of which also filed motions to dismiss the case Friday.

Piney Point includes hazardous phosphogypsum stacks, a byproduct of phosphate production, which took place at the site from 1966 to 1999. State and local officials and HRK scrambled to shore up the site in April after leaks of wastewater raised concerns about a breach.

In the lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote they are seeking to “ensure Piney Point is operated and closed in a manner that complies with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and abates the present imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment, including endangered species such as manatees and sea turtles.”

The groups asked a judge to take a series of steps, including requiring the defendants “to abate the present imminent and substantial endangerment to health and/or the environment at Piney Point.” They also asked for the judge to “exercise close supervision” of work on closing the site.

The DeSantis administration lawyers dispute that the state has violated the federal laws, but they also argue the lawsuit should be rejected because it is moot, in part because of the court-ordered receiver in the separate case.

“Here, a receiver has been appointed, funding is in place, and the receiver is doing preparatory work with an engineering firm that will draw up plans to close the facility,” the Department of Environmental Protection’s motion said. “Plaintiffs are not entitled to anything further from this court.”


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