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St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill

By Charlie Frago
By Mark Puente
Signs at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg warn people in September to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city's overwhelmed sewer system in September 2016. The city recently learned that no employees will face charges as a result of that crisis. The St. Petersburg City Council also agreed to spend $326 million fixing its sewer system. [LARA CERRI | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — The city has put the legal fallout from the sewage crisis behind it.

Last week, St. Petersburg officials learned that the criminal investigation into the crisis — the city dumped up to 200 million gallons of waste from 2015-16 — would not result in any city employees facing charges.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Minor St. Petersburg sewage spill causes major headaches

That was contingent on the St. Petersburg City Council approving a consent order with the state pledging to spend $326 million to improve the sewage system that failed so spectacularly.

The council did just that on Thursday evening. They expressed reservations about how the city will pay for those repairs. But they were also ready to put months of blame, criticism and opprobrium behind them.

"I think this maps out our plan to fix the crisis," City Council member Darden Rice said. "It's important because it legally binds us into doing what we say we're going to do."

The city's top litigator, Joseph Patner, emailed council members last week to inform them that he and City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch met with state officials June 21 for about an hour. Both sides later had two phone conversations.

"We can now inform you that the (Pinellas-Pasco) State Attorney's Office is closing the State investigation initiated by FWC, contingent upon the city entering into a consent order ..." Patner wrote on July 11. "No charges will be brought against the City of St. Petersburg or any employee ... this concludes all criminal investigations into the sewage discharge issue."

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman on Thursday could not confirm that the investigation is over. But Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said both his office and FWC investigators agreed criminal charges were not warranted.

"They did not recommend any charges," McCabe said of the FWC report. "We agreed with them. The consensus was there was no criminal violations."

The sewage mess has been a drag on the re-election campaign of Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is locked in a tight race with former Mayor Rick Baker. Kriseman said his main focus is getting the city's sewer system fixed.

But Kriseman also wondered why neither he, nor any members of his staff, were interviewed by state investigators.

"I was surprised quite frankly," he said. "It would have been nice to have been asked some questions of what we knew and what we didn't know."

Especially the Albert Whitted sewage plant issue, the mayor said. City Council voted to close the sewage plant in 2011, and that decision was carried out by the Kriseman administration in 2015. A state report said closing one of the city's four sewage plants left it unable to handle the record rains that followed after a tropical storm and hurricane in 2016.

Baker has said closing Albert Whitted was a mistake. Kriseman has blamed bad advice from former city officials for shuttering the plant.

The mayor blamed that bad counsel on former Public Works Administrator Mike Connors (who abruptly retired in 2015 when the first sewage spills took place) and former Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt (who the mayor suspended, then fired, while the crisis raged in late 2016). Both "were comfortable with closing it" the mayor said.

The FWC has pursued the criminal investigation since September 2016, the height of the sewage spills. The mayor and his staff at the time initially declined to disclose how much it was dumping and insisted the media refer to the spill as "very diluted wastewater." Kriseman has also claimed the Northwest spill was "clean," which is why nearby residents weren't informed by more than a few posted signs of potential health risks.

The mayor has said that he regrets his administration communicated so poorly during the crisis. He then hired a $90,000 public works spokesman to improve those efforts.

Federal investigators also questioned sewer officials, but then in May the federal probe into the city's woes ended without comment. Patner has said that federal authorities were satisfied by the pending consent order.

There's still a federal lawsuit out there, filed against the city by a coalition of environmental groups who have accused the city of violating the Clean Water Act.

Most of the $326 million will be spent on improvements to the system's infrastructure over the next several years. It also includes an $810,000 fine levied by the state which the city will spend on anti-pollution programs.

Most of the projects included in the plan, including injection wells, filters, raintrays, manhole liners and a lining of collection system, are already underway. But the council still wondered how the city would pay for it all. If the Penny for Pinellas sales tax referendum passes in the fall, the city could gain $90 million over the next decade to spend on the consent order for the next decade. The rest could be covered by hikes in utility rates, reserves or even loans.

"I'm troubled with some parts of this," City Council member Ed Montanari said, "including the $326 million cost that goes along with this consent order that we need to approve but (without) having the finance plan attached to that."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected].

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: ST. PETERSBURG'S SEWAGE CRISIS

Hurricane Hermine leaves Tampa Bay area befouled (Sept. 2, 2016)

St. Pete sewer plant operator seeks whistleblower protections, saying city knew it shouldn't shutter Albert Whitted plant (Sept. 16, 2016)

Whistleblower says Northwest sewage spill was dirtier than St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says it was (Sept. 20, 2016)

Sunshine City? More like the Leaky City: St. Petersburg's sewage problem tied to pipe leaks (Oct. 20, 2016)

http://www.tampabay.com/news/st-petersburg-mayor-rick-kriseman-fires-one-official-demotes-another-over/2307007 (Dec. 20, 2016)

Rick vs. Rick: Closing Albert Whitted sewage plant could impact St. Petersburg mayor's race (May 29, 2017)