TALLAHASSEE – Environmental regulators told state lawmakers Thursday that Coronet Industries Inc. is pledging its cooperation in an ongoing pollution investigation but that concern remains high over the company’s financial stability.
If the phosphate processor were to abandon its Plant City production facility and declare bankruptcy, Florida taxpayers could be left with the estimated $45 million environmental cleanup bill.
“We do not have the resources to close this site or undertake cleanup,” Allan Bedwell, a deputy secretary at the state Department of Environmental Protection, told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government.
In addition to the joint state and federal investigation into contaminated drinking water at sites around the plant plant and the ongoing enforcement actions from past state probes, Coronet is being sued by irate neighbors. Contributing further to the company’s financial uncertainty is a depressed market for its primary product: animal feed supplement.
“Reading between the lines, what you’re saying is that with all the potential litigation pending against the company, you’re concerned it could become the state’s problem to clean up this site,” said state Sen. Charlie Clary, R-Destin, the committee chairman.
If that happens, Clary’s committee would have to find the money to pay for the cleanup.
State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, asked whether regulators had been actively monitoring Coronet before widespread publicity this year over a neighborhood lawsuit against the company and laboratory analyses showing polluted wells.
Bedwell said the agency has a long history of enforcement actions at the production facility, which has been used as an industrial site for much of the past century by several companies. The site, under its current ownership, has seen the greatest level of enforcement activities, he said.
This month, DEP Secretary David Struhs alerted federal authorities that he is worried the company might not have enough money to stay in business, much less finance cleanup and closure of the site.
Among other things, the 980-acre plant site features 10 holding ponds filled with 1 billion gallons of contaminated water from the processing operation.
The DEP wants a financial guarantee from Coronet, estimated at $40 million to $45 million, for the cleanup costs. The company says it is willing to come up with a reasonable amount of cash to satisfy the agency’s concerns.
Bedwell also reminded committee members that the state fund being used to clean up the contaminated Piney Point phosphorous plant in Manatee County will be depleted by summer 2005. The estimated cost of that cleanup is $120 million, about $80 million of which has yet to be allocated.
Taxpayers inherited the mess when Mulberry Corp. went bankrupt in 2001, leaving huge stacks filled with poisonous water for someone else to clean up.