With work continuing to prevent a potentially catastrophic collapse of a reservoir wall, the Florida Senate will consider a budget amendment Wednesday to spend as much as $200 million to clean up the site of a former phosphate plant in Manatee County.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said early Monday evening that the money would be used to clean up and close hazardous phosphogypsum stacks, a byproduct of phosphate production, at the Piney Point site.
Wastewater on the site is contaminated, and a leak in a reservoir in recent days has led to an evacuation of residents and a state of emergency amid fears that a breach could lead a wall to collapse. Crews have been pumping water out of the reservoir to try to relieve pressure.
In the announcement about potential funding, Simpson said the Senate would look to use money from the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan, a new federal stimulus package. A Senate news release said a full cleanup and restoration is anticipated to cost "upwards of $200 million."
“This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen for too long,” Simpson said in a prepared statement. “I have committed to Senator Boyd that 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 problem again in five, 10 or 20 years.”
Boyd, who represents the area, said the Piney Point issue 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,” Boyd said in a statement.
The Senate and House will take up their proposed 2021-2022 budgets Wednesday before negotiating a final spending plan in the coming weeks.
Also Monday, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, announced that he has scheduled a meeting Wednesday of the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee to investigate the Piney Point issue.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican who represents the area, said the situation remains an “all hands on deck” emergency. Buchanan also said the company that owns the property, HRK Holdings, should be held responsible for damage and cleanup efforts.
"After flying over the area threatened by the leak of contaminated wastewater at Piney Point, it's clear that a breach of the reservoir would have catastrophic consequences,” Buchanan said in a statement. “The path of floodwaters resulting from a rupture would affect homes, businesses, farmland, Tampa Bay and Bishop Harbor."
Simpson said the situation is an “environmental and public health issue that has to be addressed” but that the Senate would work with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody to recover any available money.
Environmental groups have blasted the state for its handling of the former Mulberry Corp. phosphate plant.
“This is what lax environmental regulation and enforcement gets us,” Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the Florida office of the environmental law firm Earthjustice. “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.”
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