piney point

AP photo

In this aerial shot, Piney Point’s phosphogypsum stack looks harmless — inviting, even. Like the phosphate industry as a whole, a closer look reveals a toxic mess.

The email notifications from the state regarding the Piney Point leak strike a great tone. This one showed up last Saturday:

DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein was onsite today at the Manatee County Emergency Operations Center where he provided real-time updates on the state’s response efforts. The following statement is from Secretary Valenstein.

“The department’s top priority at this time is the protection of public health and safety. As a result of the State of Emergency declared by Gov. DeSantis today, this will ensure resources are available for response and recovery.

“Our first response activities are focused on ensuring releases are controlled and stopped as quickly as possible. We will then focus on our regulatory review and enforcement.

“I assure you that DEP is dedicated to full enforcement for any damages to our state’s resources and holding HRK accountable for this event.”

Sounds properly serious, right? It’s what we want to hear — we’re not about to let polluters get away with it, we’re going to hold their feet to the fire, we’ll make sure they pay, yadda yadda yadda.

Sorry, but I don’t believe a word of it.

It’s got nothing to do with the (R) they put after DeSantis’ name. We’ve had (D) governors whose administrations were equally incapable of admitting that Florida’s regulatory system is just as responsible for this catastrophic mess as the mining companies that they’ve been oh-so-cozy with for all these many years.

And is this going to be the end of that special relationship? Don’t be so naive. The state will rough up the “responsible parties” a little bit as long as they know we’re looking, then as soon as our attention gets diverted to the latest celebrity divorce, they’ll be right back to pillow talk. Remember, we’ve got the best government money can buy.

Really, the money is all that matters anyway. You and I can’t pollute without getting the DEP all over us, but that’s only because we can’t afford to. Just imagine what we could get away with if we had the funds to line the right pockets, donate to the right campaigns, toss a few bucks to the right nonprofits, spend a bit on popular community projects.

We’d be even more bulletproof with a good story. We’d have to make it sound homespun and down-to-earth. We need it to appeal to the working class and get them to identify with it, so it looks like anyone attacking us is attacking them. Gonna take a lot of PR money to do it right, but if we could buy government support and then convince the public to support us too — well, I guess we could pretty much do whatever we wanted.

Of course, the cycle will eventually break, because Florida will eventually run out of phosphate. That’s the thing about non-renewable resources: They don’t renew themselves. Neither does the earth that those resources are taken from, and even the best reclamation efforts can’t come close to what nature took uncounted years to build.

And we’ll have to hope real hard that the promises from the mining companies that the self-monitored quality of their wastewater is great, and they’ve figured out how to make sure there will be no more spills, and they’re really deeply truly committed to the the environment and stuff now. I guess that’ll be good enough for us. It’s not like mining companies (or any other big industry) have ever tried to pull the wool over our eyes before.

How much water will ultimately be dumped at Piney Point? How much damage will it do? Will it be localized to Tampa Bay, or will it spread south along the coast like a much smaller spill in 2011 did? For the answers to these questions and more, you’ll have to stay tuned. The newspaper will cover that; it’s what a newspaper does.

But no matter what happens this time, this much is guaranteed: It won’t be the last time the phosphate casts a big dark shadow over Florida’s waterways and all of us who depend on them. Believe the tough talk and sincere lies if it helps you sleep at night. I’d rather just stay awake.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@


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