Piney Point put into receivership; ‘straight line’ to closure promised

The 77-acre Piney Point reservoir is located in Manatee County, just south of the Tampa Bay area.
The 77-acre Piney Point reservoir is located in Manatee County, just south of the Tampa Bay area.(Source: CNN, WFTS)
Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 5:56 PM EDT
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PALMETTO, Fla. (WWSB) - A judge has appointed a Tampa bankruptcy lawyer as receiver for the former phosphate facility at Piney Point.

Hebert R. Donica, who was put in charge of the facility by the 12th Circuit Court Wednesday, told ABC7 on Thursday that he intends to run “a transparent exercise” to clean up the troubled site and “shut that sucker down once and for all.”

Donica is familiar with Piney Point’s history, serving as a bankruptcy trustee in 2001 when Mulberry Corp. walked away from the facility.

He has been given total control over the site and it’s cleanup. He says his first order of business is to make sure the phosphogypsum stack that failed earlier this year is stable. He said he will be meeting with engineers and scientists to ensure the walls of the ponds, “are secure and sufficient to not allow another breach,” he said.

Donica said he didn’t believe Piney Point property’s owner, HRK Holdings, would have to file for bankruptcy. “I don’t think there will be a bankruptcy. There’s no need for it,” he said.

Donica reflected on the decades-long saga of Piney Point. He said a host of things conspired to doom Piney Point from the very beginning.

The plant opened in 1966 as a subsidiary of the Borden Company. “It was built in the ‘60s, before any regulations,” he observed.

Mainly relying on agriculture, the phosphate industry was one of the first real industries in Central Florida. “Communities were thrilled to have them come in,” Donica said, as they looked forward to an improved tax base and jobs.

By 1970, fish kills at Bishop Harbor were being blamed on operations at the plant.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, new owners Royster Phosphates and the Mulberry Corporation went belly up. And by 2004, the Environmental Protection Commission had taken over the property, then returned it over to the State Department of Environmental Protection to run. Under the DEP, 1.1 billion gallons of water from the defunct plant were dumped into Tampa Bay.

In 2006, the current owner, HKR Holdings, bought the site from the state, with the promise of reclaiming the site for beneficial use. But after a leak of 170 million gallons of wastewater in 2011, HRK filed for bankruptcy.

A 2013 plan to build deep injection wells to get rid of the wastewater was approved. But, it was met with environmental opposition, so the wells were never built.

And that brings us to 2021, when a leak in the plastic liner in late March caused 180 million gallons of wastewater to be dumped into Tampa Bay.

After the liner failure in 2011, subsequent lawsuits spelled trouble for HRK Holdings. “It interfered with HRK’s ability to secure funds,” to operate, Donica said.

Which is why putting the facility under receivership makes sense, he said. “One, HRK may not be financially able,” to clean and close the facility on it’s own.

Secondly, “a receiver is independent,” Donica explained. “I don’t have to answer to investors. I don’t any any motivation other than a straight line,” to secure the facility and shut it down.

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