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Florida blames ‘vulture’ investor who owns phosphate plant that spewed polluted wastewater

Author Stephen King who has a home near a troubled Florida plant that has leaked wastewater and led to a recent evacuation order slammed its ‘hustler’ owners, but local officials say it will be hard to pin them down. 

Florida officials want to hold accountable the owners of the troubled Piney Point phosphate plant that’s led to a costly cleanup and worries of continued leaks.  

Holding the plant ownership financially liable appears unlikely, as they have ‘one shell company after another,’ a county official said, making it hard to pin culpability on one person or entity, according to a report from the Miami Herald.

‘Piney Point is what happens when you let the sharpies and hustlers have free rein,’ King wrote on Twitter last week, blasting the owners. ‘Money talks and the environment walks.’

Millions of gallons of wastewater leaked from Piney Point, an abandoned phosphate plant near Tampa Bay, causing hundreds of homes to be evacuated and a state of emergency declared over the weekend. 

Florida lawmakers have proposed spending $200 million to clean up and close the reservoir amid concerns of another catastrophic failure in the future.

Author Stephen King is among those criticizing the owners of Piney Point 

Effluent spews from a pipe into a ditch at Port Manatee, where a breach in a nearby wastewater reservoir on the site of a defunct phosphate plant forced an evacuation order for hundreds of homes

Effluent spews from a pipe into a ditch at Port Manatee, where a breach in a nearby wastewater reservoir on the site of a defunct phosphate plant forced an evacuation order for hundreds of homes

This still image from video shows the breach in the containment wall of the Piney Point reservoir; officials warned that a more catastrophic breach would swamp the area

This still image from video shows the breach in the containment wall of the Piney Point reservoir; officials warned that a more catastrophic breach would swamp the area

According to the report, the plant is owned by a shell company, HRK Holdings, which has been running in bankruptcy since a previous spill at the site in 2011.

The Miami Herald reports that HRK’s principal owner – William ‘Mickey’ F. Harley III – is a Wall Street executive and former hedge fund manager.

A Forbes profile from 2004 described Harley as a ‘vulture, investing in troubled companies that are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection or are trying to avoid it with an out-of-court restructuring’.  

Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge told the Miami Herald he wants the owner of the plant held accountable. 

‘I’d love to string them up, but the reality of the situation is they have one shell company after another. These guys are rich and smart and they know what they’re doing.’ 

Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said he wants to see the owners of the leaking plant held accountable

William F. (Mickey) Harley III is principal owner of HRK Holdings, according to the Miami Herald, which is facing scrutiny from Florida officials over wastewater spill at its phosphate plant at Piney Point

Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge, left, wants to see the owners of the Piney Point wastewater plant held accountable after a massive environmental disaster there.  William F. (Mickey) Harley III is principal owner of HRK Holdings, according to the Miami Herald, a shell company that owns Piney Point

 

This image shows the breach in the containment wall of the Piney Point reservoir. This 77-acre pond was holding 480 million gallons of water just 2 weeks ago. Now it's below 300 million gallons as emergency drainage efforts continue

This image shows the breach in the containment wall of the Piney Point reservoir. This 77-acre pond was holding 480 million gallons of water just 2 weeks ago. Now it’s below 300 million gallons as emergency drainage efforts continue

Best-selling author King has a home in Sarasota, Florida, which borders Manatee County, where the belching plant is located.

He’s been outspoken in his pleas for the environment, and that wasn’t any different last week.   

‘Piney Point could be the environmental disaster Florida has been courting for a long, long time,’ he said on Twitter. 

Forbes describes Harley as a former shoe factory foreman who stumbled into a job on Wall Street in the early 1990s.

Since then he owned a series of Hooters franchises, served as president of a mining company in Namibia, and invested in cannabis and blueberry companies.

In an online bio, Harley is described as an ‘agriculturist at heart’.

Harley didn’t respond to the newspaper’s request for comment. 

An unidentified foam collects on reeds where effluent flows from a pipe into a drainage ditch at Port Manatee South Gate on Tuesday

An unidentified foam collects on reeds where effluent flows from a pipe into a drainage ditch at Port Manatee South Gate on Tuesday

A handout satellite image made available by Maxar Technologies shows a breached retaining wall of wastewater holding pond, in Piney Point

A handout satellite image made available by Maxar Technologies shows a breached retaining wall of wastewater holding pond, in Piney Point

Through his firm HRK Holdings, Harley purchased the former phosphate plant in 2006 for $4.3m in 2006 from a company called DEP, the Miami Herald reported.

DEP had bought the plant from a previous owner Mulberry Corp, when it went bankrupt in 2001.

DEP had intended to close the site using taxpayer money, but the new owners HRK instead had a plan to store dredging disposal on the site.

The Herald reported that, as part of the sale, DEP asked the new owner to cover an exposed lining of phosphate with a layer of dirt, a process that would cost $4m.

But the deal was later waived because of an agreement HRK had come to with the Port of Manatee to dredge the site.

The Herald reported that HRK and the Port of Manatee were required to take out a $2m insurance policy, which was never purchased.

The dredged material from the Port of Manatee – which was meant to cover the hazardous material –  was delayed.

Then in 2011, a month after 1.1 million cubic yards of material was dumped on the phosphate mine, a fault with the liner caused 170 million gallons of toxic waste into Tampa Bay’s Bishop Harbor.

Amid a flurry of lawsuits, HRK filed for bankruptcy, claiming it couldn’t afford to pay for the environmental cleanup.

Facing a $26m debt, it sold off parts of the plant. 

The Florida National Guard has flown pumps to the reservoir site and the Army Corps of Engineers is also there

The Florida National Guard has flown pumps to the reservoir site and the Army Corps of Engineers is also there

The Florida National Guard is seen flying pumps to the reservoir site Sunday 

It wasn’t Harley’s first brush with litigation, according to published reports.

According to Newsday, Harley, and a hedge fund he managed were sued by Pittsburgh nonprofit The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

The foundation had invested $2m in 2004 with a fund managed by Harley.

Amid the financial crisis of 2008, Harley said the fund was being wound down and its investment would be returned.

The lawsuit claimed that Harley had returned money to other investors, but not to the foundation.

The case was settled confidentially. 

Neither Harley, nor a site manager for HRK, responded to requests for comments made by the Herald. 

The latest environmental scare began on Saturday. when toxic wastewater breached the Piney Point reservoir.

Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency and ordered 300 homes near the large reservoir evacuated.

The evacuation order for residents and business owners around a wastewater reservoir was lifted on Tuesday afternoon.

Some wastewater is still leaking from the reservoir but officials said the seepage rates had fallen so it was now safe for residents to return to their homes and businesses. 

Some prisoners from a county penitentiary were also bussed to an undisclosed location, while others were moved to higher floors in the facility.


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