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Florida has settled a lawsuit over 'disastrous' phosphate plant leak into Tampa Bay

FILE - This aerial photo taken from an airplane shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine on April 3, 2021, in Bradenton, Fla. The polluted leftovers of Florida's phosphate fertilizer mining industry, more than 1 billion tons in “stacks” that resemble enormous ponds, are at risk for leaks or other contamination triggered by Hurricane Ian, said environmental groups Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.
(Tiffany Tompkins/The Bradenton Herald via AP, File)
This aerial photo taken from an airplane shows a reservoir near the old Piney Point phosphate mine on April 3, 2021, in Bradenton, Fla.

Environmental groups and the state have reached a settlement to end a federal lawsuit over management of a former phosphate plant site that leaked millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay in 2021.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper, Manasota-88 and Our Children’s Earth Foundation and the state Department of Environmental Protection filed a joint notice of settlement Monday involving the Piney Point site in Manatee County.

The environmental groups said in an announcement that the settlement includes the Department of Environmental Protection drafting a Clean Water Act permit “that will require more robust oversight of pollution from the Piney Point phosphate facility.” Also, the state will pay $75,000 for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to monitor water quality in the area where Piney Point’s discharges enters Tampa Bay.

READ MORE: Progress is made on closing the troubled Florida phosphate plant stacks

The lawsuit, filed by the groups in May 2021 in the federal Middle District of Florida, alleged the Department of Environmental Protection and other defendants long mishandled the site.

“A strong, enforceable Clean Water Act permit for Tampa Bay’s most problematic polluter is long overdue,” Ragan Whitlock, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a prepared statement Monday. “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.”

Abbey Tyrna, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper, said in a statement that the settlement sets “a new standard of transparency for the water quality exiting the plant.”

“Additionally, it imposes critical restrictions on key pollutants, ensuring a more sustainable and healthier future for our bay,” Tyrna said.

The lawsuit was filed after the discharge of about 215 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay because of fears about a potentially catastrophic breach of a reservoir at the site. The lawsuit said the discharges, in part, caused harmful algae blooms and fish kills. Also, nearby residents had to be temporarily evacuated because of fears of a breach.

Lawmakers in 2021 decided to spend $100 million to help clean up the site.

Piney Point includes hazardous phosphogypsum stacks, a byproduct of phosphate production, which took place at the site from 1966 to 1999. Associated wastewater is stored at the site.

The lawsuit alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and a law known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The department denied the alleged violations.

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