(The Center Square) – Florida Senate budget-writers have not included $10.2 billion in federal assistance the state will receive from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in their tentative $95 billion Fiscal Year 2022 plan.
But Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, on Monday said the Senate could earmark up to $200 million in federal assistance to clean up the breached gypsum stack holding pond at Piney Point on Tampa Bay in Manatee County.
“This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen for too long,” Simpson said. “The Senate will advocate for utilizing federal funding to ensure a full and complete cleanup and restoration. We don’t want to be talking about this again in five, 10 or 20 years.”
A full site cleanup could cost $200 million, Simpson said, but an amendment to be filed Wednesday by Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, will seek $3 million to dispose of the wastewater.
Boyd is also championing House Bill 4057, filed by Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, which would match the $6 million Manatee County has committed to remedy issues at Piney Point.
Boyd Monday said the former phosphate plant, built in 1966, closed since 2001, purchased by HRK Holdings in 2006 and now in foreclosure, has “impacted our community for a quarter of a century.”
“With at least one prior accident and now another, recent events have illuminated the need to fix this problem and put it behind us once and for all,” he said.
On Sunday, Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to find a “permanent solution to this longstanding issue” by not only closing Piney Point, but in dealing with other gypsum stacks that dot Central Florida’s landscape as a residue of the state’s $85 billion phosphate industry. If closing Piney Point would cost $200 million, doing so for 24 others could cost up to $5 billion.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, Monday said he will ask the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee to investigate Piney Point and begin discussions about DeSantis’ “permanent solution” for gypsum stack ponds.
The lingering potential for a “catastrophic spill” of millions of wastewater from the 77-acre, 25-foot-deep wastewater pond into nearby Palmetto neighborhoods and Tampa Bay persists four days after a breach was discovered.
The threat prompted Manatee County officials to evacuate more than 300 homes Friday and Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a three-county disaster area Saturday.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Florida National Guard, is pumping the wastewater into Tampa Bay. The effluent does not contain excessive radiation – phosphate mining produces natural radiation in processing phosphogypsum – but could spur algal blooms.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will “‘get boots on the ground’ to help confront the contaminated water crisis at Piney Point."
“I appreciate that Gov. DeSantis and Manatee County have declared a state of emergency, but we need the EPA's assistance as well,” he said. “We've known for years the holding ponds of contaminated water were running out of capacity and threatening the region.”
And that’s the problem, critics maintain. It’s been “known for years” that gypsum ponds pose a significant water-quality risk but they’ve languished in a regulatory no man’s land after the EPA decided 30 years ago to allow states to regulate them.
Environmental groups are demanding the EPA regulate phosphogypsum waste.
“This is what lax environmental regulation and enforcement gets us,” Earthjustice Florida attorney Tania Galloni said. “The situation goes back decades, it turned into the taxpayers’ problem, and the state failed to do what was needed to keep people and the environment safe.”