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Environmentalists sue over Florida wastewater reservoir leak

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Efforts to clean up a leaky reservoir that dumped tens of millions of gallons of potentially hazardous gypsum wastewater into Tampa Bay must be overseen by a federal judge to guard against continued mismanagement, environmental groups claimed in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

More than 215 million gallons (813 million liters) of wastewater was released earlier this year into the bay, blamed by some scientists and commercial fishermen for causing algae blooms, temporarily closing shellfish harvesting and worsening an outbreak of fish-killing toxic red tide along the Gulf coast.

“The Piney Point disaster is exhibit A in a long list of Florida’s failures to protect our water and wildlife from the harms of phosphogypsum,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs.

The Piney Point reservoir contains stacks of gypsum that are a slightly radioactive byproduct of phosphate fertilizer production. After its owner went bankrupt, the state took over its operation and allowed dredge material to be stored there, according to the lawsuit. The state later sold the site.

State officials have declined comment on the lawsuit, which names Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Department of Environmental Protection and others. It claims the leak and others before it violated several federal laws, including the Clean Water Act.

After this year’s leak, the Legislature approved $100 million for a plan to permanently close the reservoir. Officials also say the state will hold accountable those responsible for the leak, which was caused when tears in a plastic liner threatened to trigger a major breach that could have unleashed even more contaminated water.

The environmental groups contend in their lawsuit that the state’s track record on Piney Point is highly questionable and that judicial oversight is needed to ensure the viability of cleanup plans.

“Sate and local regulators have failed the public for decades and continue to mismanage the waste generated by the phosphate industry,”said Annie Beaman, co-executive director of the Our Children’s Earth Foundation. “We resort to federal court oversight when decisions by the political branches of the government endanger the public.”

Among the ongoing threats, the lawsuit contends, include possible continued failures of the reservoir liners, leaks that pollute groundwater supplies and a plan to use deep-well injection to dispose of wastewater underground.

“Recent events at the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant clearly demonstrate that not enough is being done to safeguard the public or the environment,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, a nonprofit environmental organization.

About two dozen other phosphogypsum stacks exist in Florida reservoirs that contain more than 1 billion tons of potentially hazardous waste, the environmental groups say.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare Piney Point an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to the environment and public health, and require government action to fix that. The judge is also asked to “exercise close supervision” over the situation.

“We’re not confident in our regulators’ ability to manage this mess and this legal action is necessary to protect communities and waterways from further harm,” said Justin Bloom, founder of Suncoast Waterkeeper.