PALMETTO, Fla. — Late last week, officials in Florida discovered a small leak at a Florida wastewater reservoir that quickly prompted a state of emergency and mass evacuations in the area. While touring the former Piney Point phosphate mine on Sunday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged he would hold the property owner financially responsible for the mess.
But according to newly uncovered records, that might be a difficult task.
“Please allow me to begin with, this is very unfortunate. I am very sorry, and all steps and measures that I know of are being taken,” said HRK Holdings, LLC employee Jeff Barath last Thursday to Manatee County Commissioners.
He was called to the meeting last Thursday to explain how a small leak quickly became a major emergency, leading to the evacuation of hundreds of residents the next day.
The contaminated water stored on the site has been an issue since the phosphate mine shut down in 2001.
“The county didn’t permit this site, we didn’t create this mess, yet here we are,” Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said.
DeSantis, who toured the site Sunday, has mobilized the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and other resources to help.
“Our administration is dedicated to full enforcement of any damages to our state’s resources and holding the company HRK accountable for this event. This is not acceptable. This is not something we will allow to persist,” DeSantis said.
Barath assured commissioners the company will make it right.
“This is my community, too. And we are doing everything possible to prevent a true catastrophe, which would be the failure of that stack system,” Barath said.
But getting the company to come up with millions of dollars to pay for containment and clean-up could be a problem.
The company’s authorized representative is William F. Harley, III. of Massapequa, New York. He’s a hedge fund manager who recently became CEO of a medical marijuana venture.
Prior to that, records show he owned multiple Hooters franchises and served as a director and major investor Frederick’s of Hollywood, which sells lingerie and adult novelties.
Harley signed off as the debtor on a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition for HRK Holdings, LLC. in 2012, just six years after the company was formed. It currently leases space to multiple companies that have operations near Port Manatee.
At the time of the bankruptcy filing, the company included an exhibit saying it needed money to repair and monitor the facility.
“If the materials are not properly monitored and maintained, or if a gypstack failure occurs, the materials may pose a risk to the environment in the future,” the document says,
During and after the bankruptcy case, HRK Holdings continued to borrow millions from a bank, but according to a foreclosure lawsuit filed in Manatee County Circuit Court last November, the company didn’t pay it back.
The phone number for HRK Holdings, LLC. in Manatee County is disconnected.
This story was originally published by Adam Walser on WFTS in Tampa, Florida.