TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The crisis at the former Piney Point phosphate plant seems to have been averted. Now, Florida's lawmakers are stepping in to figure out what comes next.
Members of the Pandemic and Public Emergencies Committee spoke with the state's Environmental Protection Secretary Wednesday evening. Secretary Noah Valenstein told lawmakers the state is already mulling plans to close and clear the site permanently.
It comes after a recent leak at the facility’s wastewater pond, which threatened to flood nearby homes with hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water.
Valenstein said Piney Point is a legacy site with a long history of issues. He said the state should have taken the chance to shut it down years ago when some of the first problems came to light.
"I think that is, clearly, the most important lesson to learn and make sure that the long history of Piney Point is over, that there is not another chapter that is allowed to be written about this site -- not another reinvention," he said. "Certainly, if you're going to learn one thing it's that you have to simply close a site and that it’s worth the state putting the funds in to complete that closure."
Lawmakers spent an hour questioning Valenstein on current protection protocols, the efforts of Piney Point's current owner -- a bankrupt company called HRK Holdings, and what policy the state might create to prevent similar emergencies.
Committee Chair Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said he came away proud of how quickly Florida reacted to the problem once it was discovered.
Leek also felt the next step needed to be holding HRK accountable.
"What we need to do is not stop at just learning," Leek said. "We need to go forward with our full enforcement and accountability measures to the extent the law permits."
State officials said HRK should be on the hook for cleanup costs and any long-term environmental issues due to the leak. DEP attorneys are also investigating possible violations of state code.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, members have their own plan for Piney Point. The upper chamber pushing to clean and close the site with $200 million in federal relief dollars, approved in the latest relief package. The House hasn't yet agreed to the idea.