The state has vowed to hold HRK Holdings — owner of the troubled Piney Point phosphate plant site leaking polluted wastewater — “accountable” for a still-unresolved environmental crisis that has forced hundreds of evacuations and threatens to devastate marine life in Tampa Bay.
That will be a major legal challenge.
“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,” said Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge. “It’ll be like getting blood out of a turnip. We’ll never get a nickel out of them.”
Since going belly-up after a massive spill in 2011, HRK has been operating in bankruptcy, contending it could not afford the millions needed for the previous cleanup. Since the rupture of a retention pond wall at the long-shuttered plant last week, the company has said nothing about how, or if, it will handle the latest cleanup bills. Neither has the wealthy New York investor that Florida public records identify as HRK’s principal owner — William “Mickey” F. Harley III, a Wall Street executive and former hedge fund manager with a history of snapping up bankrupt or struggling companies.
His list of past and present investments is long and, to say the least, eclectic. At one point he owned a series of Hooters franchises in Long Island, had a seat on the board of lingerie company Frederick’s of Hollywood, served a stint as president of a uranium mine in Namibia, and most recently, began a foray into the marijuana industry.
Forbes, in 2004, called him “a vulture,” an investor who specializes in swooping in on dying and troubled companies and making a profit anyway. In 2006, the Wall Street Journal highlighted the time he bested legendary financier Warren Buffet himself in a deal over Seitel Inc, a then-bankrupt seismic data company.
Nowadays he serves as CEO of Greenrose Acquisition Corp., which just announced it plans to buy four cannabis companies, where he describes himself in his bio as an “agriculturist at heart.” His mini-resume on the site includes serving as president of an organic blueberry farm, running “the largest vertically integrated pecan company in the world,” and managing a handful of hedge funds.
It doesn’t mention his stake in Piney Point, an abandoned phosphate plant with a long history of environmental problems.
Harley’s long business record also is dotted with a few lawsuits — including one that accused him of improperly using his hedge firm’s money to bail out the phosphorus mine after another spill years ago.
Harley did not immediately respond to requests for comment left with his current place of business, a cellphone number affiliated with him or with lawyers who have previously represented him. Jeff Barath, the site manager for HRK who has been the company spokesman during efforts to control the leaking wastewater pool, did not respond to a request for comment.
This threat to the public appeared to be easing Wednesday morning after Manatee County lifted its evacuation order Tuesday afternoon, allowing the 137 residents to return to their homes while workers still used pumps and vacuum trucks to lower water levels at Piney Point. But there is still risk to Tampa Bay and a question about who will pay a bill that will run into the tens of millions or more for a permanent solution to the abandoned plant’s sprawling wastewater ponds.
Bonnie Malloy, an attorney with Earthjustice who previously worked with DEP, said it can be tough for the agency to find a “living, breathing, financially viable person” to pay for cleanup in cases like these. It’s also hard to build a court case strong enough to cut through layers of shell companies and limited liability companies shielding investors and force them to pay.
“It’s definitely a pervasive…