ST. PETERSBURG — Of all the political stink that has wafted over city politics since the first drop of 200 million gallons of sewage started gushing out nearly two years ago, one question lingers:
Why did the city decide to close the Albert Whitted sewage plant?
The answer spans three mayors and will likely become a pivotal issue in the electoral battle between two of them: incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman vs. former Mayor Rick Baker.
Why does the Albert Whitted decision matter? Because closing one of the city's four sewer plants exacerbated the St. Petersburg sewage crisis, the worst environmental and financial headache the city has ever faced. That's according to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection report, and there are state and federal investigations still looking into the mess.
The city closed the plant in April 2015. Four months later, about 31.5 million gallons of untreated and partly treated sewage spilled and was discharged into Tampa and Boca Ciega bays.
By September 2016, the count was close to 200 million gallons.
The Baker years
What was Baker's role in the Albert Whitted decision?
It was the city's first sewer plant, built in the 1920s. It is located next to Albert Whitted Airport along the downtown waterfront. Both parcels have long been coveted for redevelopment.
Baker was elected mayor in 2001, and in front of a Downtown Partnership gathering that year, said having a sewer plant on such prime waterfront property wasn't the best use for the land.
He pondered closing the plant and directing its flow to the other three plants (which is what eventually happened in 2015). But he said the issue required a study and, if implemented, could take as long as 15 years to make happen.
By October 2002, Baker came up with a compromise plan for Albert Whitted: Remove one runway from the airport and allow part of the land to be developed. Under that proposal, the sewer plant would remain open.
Baker recently said he studied the issue 14 years ago, but was never convinced that closing the plant made fiscal sense. The city was still under a state consent order for its 1999 sewage spills and had to spend tens of millions of dollars to repair the city's sewers.
"I didn't see why closing the plant would be good for the city," Baker said.
In 2003, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to get rid of the airport.
Later, Baker formed a task force which, the following year, accepted the sewer plant as a necessary fixture that was too expensive to close.
The Kriseman years
What was Kriseman's role in closing the sewage plant?
First, consider the role of former Mayor Bill Foster, who served from 2010-2014, after Baker and before Kriseman.
Under Foster, the City Council voted in 2011 to close the plant. Senior sewer officials assured council members that the remaining three plants had sufficient capacity to handle the city's sewage.
Kriseman said Connors told him the same thing when he took over as mayor in 2014.
"I was never made aware that there was any concern that we would have difficulty if that plant closed," Kriseman said. "We had experts on our staff that we look to. You rely on the folks that you have."
The Albert Whitted plant closed in 2015, as per the council's 2011 vote. The Kriseman administration then pursued a deal with a Texas company to start a fish farm using the abandoned sewage tanks.
The sewage crisis
The first sewage leaks took place in late 2015.
It turned into a deluge in June 2016 when Tropical Storm Colin's rains forced the city to discharge millions of gallons of waste into the bay.
Kriseman finally scrapped plans to turn Albert Whitted into a fish farm. He also gave in to using BP settlement money to fix the sewers.
There were calls to reopen Albert Whitted. Instead, the mayor got City Council to spend $400,000 to add 3 million gallons of emergency storage capacity to the Southwest wastewater plant.
Then Hurricane Hermine struck in the fall, soaking the region and sending another 151 million gallons of waste into the bay and streets of west St. Petersburg.
A state investigation later found that leaving Albert Whitted wouldn't have prevented the sewage spills, but the lack of capacity made them worse. State and federal investigations were launched, and the calls to reopen Albert Whitted continued.
In October, Public Works administrator Claude Tankersley recommended reopening the plant. Three weeks later he backtracked, saying it would be too expensive, costing up to $30 million.
The Albert Whitted question
For now, the future of the plant remains up in the air. But if the two candidates start fighting over the sewage crisis, Albert Whitted will be pivotal in that debate.
Baker has already criticized Kriseman's decision to close the plant, especially before the expansion of the Southwest sewage plant was finished.
Kriseman said the decision to close the plant was made before he became mayor, that he was assured the Southwest plant could handle the increased flow.
Should Albert Whitted be reopened? Kriseman said that will be decided when the city's master plan for the water resources plant is complete by 2019.
Baker wants to move more quickly to decide Albert Whitted's fate. If elected, Baker said his first act as mayor would be to study how much it would cost to reopen the Albert Whitted plant and how quickly it could be done.
There's another reason why the Albert Whitted closure could loom over this election: The rainy season starts next month. The primary is Aug. 29.
The sewage crisis may not be over yet.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]
CORRECTION: St. Petersburg's plans to fix its sewer system do not currently include expanding the Albert Whitted wastewater treatment plant. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on this point.