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Florida Agrees to Stronger Clean Water Act Protections for Piney Point


ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to a draft Clean Water Act permit that will require more robust oversight of pollution from the Piney Point phosphate facility.

The agreement, which was spurred by a lawsuit from conservation groups, includes establishing enforceable limits on harmful effluent discharged into Tampa Bay.

After allowing the facility to operate without a permit for 20 years, Florida has also agreed to fund independent monitoring of its impacts on Tampa Bay’s water quality.

“A strong, enforceable Clean Water Act permit for Tampa Bay’s most problematic polluter is long overdue,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It shouldn’t have taken a disastrous pollution event and legal action to prompt our state regulators to do their job, but we’re hopeful this permit is a step toward eliminating the looming threat this site has posed for decades.”

The Piney Point phosphogypsum stack is a mountainous heap of toxic waste topped by an impoundment of hundreds of millions of gallons of process wastewater, stormwater, and tons of dredged spoil from Port Manatee.

Three years ago, after discovering a leak in the facility’s reservoir liner, regulators ordered the discharge of 215 million gallons of wastewater from the gypstack into Tampa Bay to avert a catastrophic collapse and flooding. The massive, fish-killing discharge of toxic, untreated wastewater followed years of regulatory failures and mismanagement at the facility.

Following the spill, the site's owners, HRK Holdings LLC, entered bankruptcy. The conservation groups have requested that U.S. District Judge William Jung hold HRK responsible for violating the Clean Water Act by discharging pollutants into Tampa Bay without a lawfully issued permit.

“Piney Point operated in contravention of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws for over 20 years,” said Dan Snyder, director of Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project. “Only through the concerted effort of these organizations did the site finally come into compliance with the Clean Water Act. This is a win for the people of Florida and their environment and shows just how important citizen suits are in an age where regulators are too cozy with polluting industries.”

“The settlement establishes a new standard of transparency for the water quality exiting the plant, a crucial step in safeguarding the well-being of our community, said Abbey Tyrna, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper. “Additionally, it imposes critical restrictions on key pollutants, ensuring a more sustainable and healthier future for our bay.”

During the 2021 wastewater release, Tampa Bay received more nitrogen — nearly 200 tons — than it usually receives from all other sources in an entire year. The red tides that have plagued Florida are fueled by nitrogen.

Following the release Tampa Bay experienced a deadly red tide that killed more than 600 tons of marine life in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

“The Piney Point disaster shook the Tampa Bay community to its core. It wasn’t too long ago that shorelines once teeming with life were littered with all kinds of dead fish for months. If you had previously found it swimming in Tampa Bay, it was likely dead after Piney Point,” said Justin Tramble, executive director of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper. “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.”

The millions of gallons of wastewater discharged into Tampa Bay continue to spread throughout the estuary and into Sarasota Bay, transporting tons of nitrogen and other pollutants into waterways and communities already struggling to manage excessive pollution that has impaired waterways and killed thousands of acres of seagrasses.

“The gypstacks at Piney Point represent the true legacy the phosphate industry will leave behind in Florida — perpetual spending of taxpayer monies and risks to the public’s health and the environment,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, Inc. “There is no economically feasible or environmentally sound way to close an abandoned phosphogypsum stack.”

“Citizen action is critical to environmental protection. Our organizations represent thousands of Floridians who treasure Tampa Bay. We all deserve to have access to a clean and healthy environment, but the Piney Point disaster demonstrated once again that state officials don’t always enforce the rules that protect people and businesses from the devastating impacts of pollution,” said Annie Beaman, executive director of Our Children’s Earth Foundation. “It is so important that Florida residents continue to stand up for clean water so we might avoid ongoing harm to our health, economy and future generations.”

The groups involved in the lawsuit are the Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, ManaSota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation. They are represented by Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Law Offices of Charles M. Tebbutt.

Learn more about phosphogypsum and efforts to protect public health and the environment from its harms.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Public Justice combines high-impact litigation, strategic partnerships, and grassroots organizing with targeted communications to shape the narrative about environmental injustice and build empowering relationships with communities most affected by environmental threats and actions. The Public Justice Environmental Enforcement Project holds polluters accountable by enforcing environmental laws and winning groundbreaking results in court to protect our nation's clean water, air, and land — and the people, animals, and ecological communities that rely upon it. For more information, visit PublicJustice.net.

Our Children’s Earth Foundation is a nonprofit public interest organization focused on protecting the most vulnerable among us: children, seniors, threatened species and ecosystems. OCE educates the public about environmental problems and empowers affected communities to take action to reduce pollution.

Tampa Bay Waterkeeper works to defend, protect, and preserve Tampa Bay’s watershed through citizen engagement and community action rooted in sound science and research.

Suncoast Waterkeeper works to protect and restore the Florida Suncoast’s waterways through enforcement, fieldwork, advocacy, and environmental education for the benefit of the communities that rely upon these precious coastal resources.

ManaSota-88, Inc. is a public interest conservation and environmental protection organization, which is a Florida not-for-profit corporation and a citizen of the State of Florida. The corporate purposes of ManaSota-88 include the protection of the public’s health, the preservation of air and water quality, and the protection of wildlife habitat.


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