The latest crisis at the Piney Point phosphate plant in Tampa Bay is the most recent chapter of a decades-long failure to reign in one of Florida’s most destructive industries: phosphate mining and production. Multiple administrations have allowed the toxic gypsum stacks, or ponds, at the site to linger while requiring only minimum protections and tolerating an exceedingly slow cleanup timeframe. By all appearances, the Department of Environmental Protection decided not to require the site’s owners, past or present, to permanently retire these ponds. Instead, one administration after the next has allowed this ticking time-bomb of toxic waters to loom over treasures like Bishop’s Harbor, Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, and Tampa Bay communities.
The destruction inflicted by the phosphate industry in Florida us so vast it can be seen from space. While scores of companies and phosphate executives have profited from this destruction, like those who originally built and operated Piney Point in the mid-1960’s, many are long gone, leaving communities to deal with the consequences. Massive discharges of toxic water from Piney Point have happened many times before. Several companies responsible for the site have gone bankrupt, leaving Floridians to bear the cost both in terms of cleaning up the site and the damage done to our nearshore waters. Unfortunately, this latest failure of this facility comes as no surprise. The Florida Legislature’s own Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability has warned lawmakers about the high costs of closing Piney Point since at least 2005.
It is important for legislative leaders to recognize Piney Point as a failure of oversight and accountability. This time let’s be sure to put the funding and plan in place to ensure a crisis like this never happens again, not only at Piney Point, but throughout Florida where abandoned toxic sites have been forgotten and ignored.