Florida Files Environmental Lawsuit Against Phosphate Company Pollution
Prisoners Remain Exposed and Without Evacuation Plans
by Panagioti Tsolkas
"We kept seeing them move the cows, but they didn’t move us.”
That was one reply to a series of interviews with people recently held at the Manatee County Jail, conducted by Jenn Hayes for Southerly magazine, published in August 2021. Jail staff were witnessed literally leading livestock from the jail’s work farm onto trailers while leaving hundreds of people locked inside.
As PLN previously reported [Aug. 2021, p. 58], Governor DeSantis issued a state of emergency due to a “real catastrophic flood situation,” ordering 315 nearby homes to evacuate but leaving hundreds stranded in the jail. The flooding was narrowly avoided by diverting the toxic, nutrient-laden wastewater out to the coast, which is now unfolding as a disaster of its own.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) filed a lawsuit on Aug 5, 2021 against HRK, the owners of the Piney Point phosphate plant which threatened to flood the adjacent Manatee County Jail in March 2021 with toxic and radioactive water. The suit alleges HRK is “incapable of operating the facility in compliance with Florida’s environmental laws and the standards, permits, and agreements related to the management of the property.”
While the DEP lawsuit didn’t mention the prisoners explicitly, it did highlight the “immediate danger to public health, safety, or welfare” caused by at least 215 gallons of toxic discharge into the surrounding waterways. DEP is asking for the assessment of civil penalties against HRK in the amount of at least $75,000 for each day it failed to comply state environmental laws and previous administrative agreements; as damages for harm caused to the waters, property, including animal, plant, and aquatic life; and attorney’s fees.
According to Dave Tomasko, director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, this amount of nutrient-rich wastewater is believed to be related to a massive occurrence red tide algal blooms in the surrounding coastal region. While red tide occurs commonly in the Gulf of Mexico and has many causes for worsening in recent years, the coast near Piney Point is an area where it has rarely been seen at the current level. It has been killing marine life by the ton and creating hazardous air quality conditions along miles of coastline.
In years past, as if to put salt in a wound, unpaid prison labor from Manatee and other surrounding county jails has been used in statewide red tide cleanup efforts. In 2018, Newsweek reported prisoners cleaning up the coastline during a massive bloom which devastated southwest Florida’s marine life, killing millions of fish as well as hundreds of manatees, turtles and dolphins.
An August 9th report in the Tampa Bay Times noted that critics of the DEP say the State’s lawsuit “read like a list of warning signs that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection missed before the crisis.” But regardless of who takes the blame in this disaster, the reality for prisoners is that Piney Point is just one example among many where prisons and jails are situated near environmental disasters, some posing an impending threat, some unfolding day by day, and some doing both, as in Manatee County.
In May 2018, PLN featured a story, “In the Eye of the Storm,” by Matt Clarke, which focused on flood damage to prisons. As Clarke explained, “flooding is a systemic issue caused by the construction of detention facilities on cheap, poorly-drained land near rivers or the coast.” This appears to be the case near Piney Point.
The state’s suit, Florida Department of Environmental Protection vs. HRK Holdings, LLC, remains pending as we go to press, as does a suit filed by environmental groups the month prior, against HRK, the Governor and the DEP (Center for Biological Diversity v. Governor Ron DeSantis, Case No. 8:21-cv-1521), which may have been what prompted the DEP’s own lawsuit.
As the Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Ecology Project has stressed since its inception in 2015, incarcerated people should be familiar with environmental laws, both to protect themselves and imperiled ecosystems. In 2019, for example, prisoners across the state in Escambia County Jail of Florida’s Panhandle were included in a class action case stemming from a 2014 flood-related disaster that caused many injuries and two deaths when the jail flooded and a gas line exploded [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.38]. That case resulted in a $17,500,000 settlement; the court documents for that case can be found on prisonlegalnews.org by searching Allen v. A.E. New Jr, Inc., Case No. 2015-CA-000722.
Additional sources: southerlymag.org, WUSF news, biologicaldiversity.org, Bradenton.com, flooddefenders.org, classactionreporter.com
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